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McDowell returns to form on Day 1 at Firestone

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AKRON, Ohio – This is a man with which we are familiar.

This is Graeme McDowell, carving his golf ball at will and walking with purpose after it. Steely-eyed and focused on the course, but quickly cracking a smile once the final putt is holed.

This is a man we once knew well, but one who hasn’t been around for quite some time. Well, he finally resurfaced during the opening round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

McDowell once again made a difficult game seem easy Thursday at Firestone Country Club, shooting a 4-under 66 to share second place, one shot behind Danny Lee. The score matched his lowest of the season on the PGA Tour and marked a rare bright spot in what has been a disappointing year for the former U.S. Open champion.

McDowell has slipped to No. 60 in the world rankings, and his best result of the season – a T-3 finish at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China in November – also serves as his only top-25 finish in the last year. At No. 159 in the FedEx Cup points race, he is sandwiched between Mark Hubbard and Chez Reavie in the standings and would not currently qualify for the playoffs.

And while Firestone is not the type of track where one typically finds his game, McDowell did just that in an opening round where he needed only 22 putts.

“I like this version of me today,” McDowell said. “It’s been a rough year, no doubt about it. Definitely been some time for reflection and some questions being asked of myself. But I think we all experience these things in everything we do. It’s how you come out the other side, really.”

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The Ulsterman had missed three of his last four cuts entering this week, and said he has been facing “technical issues” all year. Difficulty flighting the ball, trouble finding the fairway and holing putts. But ultimately, he determined that his biggest struggle has been between the ears.

“Everything’s just added up in the sort of gnawing away at that confidence and belief, and we all know that this game is about confidence and belief,” he said. “You look at a run of play like Jordan (Spieth)’s got himself on, momentum and belief is everything in this game. I’ve had none of the above this year, so it’s been hard.”

While McDowell has had plenty of time to pinpoint the swing glitches that have led to his slide from the leaderboard, he is also both thoughtful and contemplative. So as rough weeks stretched into poor months and began to define his season, he started to ask himself some difficult questions.

“I think probably the hardest question was, ‘Do I still kind of want to grind and be out here? Do I still want this?’” he said. “I mean, yes. It was an easy answer, yeah, I do want it. If this all went away, I’d miss it very badly. So when you answer that question positively, then you’ve got to start kind of answering all the other questions.”

McDowell is certainly not the first or last player to fall into a downward spiral. Former Ryder Cup teammate Lee Westwood famously dropped outside the top 200 in the world before returning to form and reaching No. 1, and he empathized with McDowell’s recent plight.

“Golf’s like that, you know. Sometimes you’ve got it, and other times you haven’t. It goes in fits and starts,” Westwood said. “Graeme’s game is a bit like that. When he finds the key, he’s red-hot and world-class. And then other times, obviously he struggles like the rest of us.”

There was no struggle for McDowell during the opening round, where he birdied four of his first seven holes and never looked back. While this is not a course where he has had much past success, he did finish T-8 a year ago – “I kind of cracked this nut last year for the first time,” he said – and hopes to build upon the momentum of his opener.

McDowell has come a long way from the man who lifted the U.S. Open trophy at Pebble Beach five summers ago. Having just turned 36, he is married with a daughter, Vale, who will turn 1 later this month.

His perspective has shifted, but he hopes to soon align those newfound priorities with some on-course success.

“I want to be back to the business end of things, where it gives you the happy feelings,” he said. “When I have my little kid run out onto the 72nd green, that’s what I want. That’s what the new me wants.”

While one round a transformation does not make, for at least one afternoon the new McDowell bore a pretty strong resemblance to the guy we used to know.