Graeme McDowell fires a 68 with British Open berth in his sights

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Graeme McDowell fires a 68 with British Open berth in his sights

PGA Tour

Graeme McDowell fires a 68 with British Open berth in his sights

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ORLANDO – Graeme McDowell carries himself with the demeanor of a jovial barkeep, known for an amiable personality that only hints at the flinty competitor beneath. And he has been more barkeep than competitor in the last couple of years. The Northern Irishman co-owns two sports bars and is an energetic entrepreneur, all while raising a young family with his wife, Kristin. It’s the kind of hectic life that makes it easy for a man to take his eye off a little dimpled white ball.

But it was the competitor in McDowell that bucked his head Thursday in the first round at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, firing a 68 that put him within reach of the leaders and within sight of a coveted berth in the tournament that means most to him this year: the Open Championship in his hometown of Portrush.

“Life just got in the way,” McDowell said by way of explanation for his on-course struggles since his last win in 2016. “I don’t think I ever sat back and rested on my laurels. My practice changed. The time that I was giving to the game changed and I was less effective in what I was doing. It snuck up on me. It sort of happened before I realized it had happened. Life just got in the way and it’s hard to get it back. I’ve been chipping at it, but it’s hard to get it back.”

In seven starts this season, McDowell has two top-20 finishes. One of those came last month in the AT&T Pebble Beach. This summer the U.S. Open returns to that iconic course where McDowell won his lone major nine years ago. The following month sees the Open Championship come to Royal Portrush. It will be the summer of GMac. If he’s part of it.

Right now, McDowell is only in the field at the U.S. Open. He will need to find some form to play his way into golf’s oldest major at his childhood home.

“I’m focusing really on the big picture right now. I’m kind of the opinion that good golf will take care of the things that I want to take care of,” he said. “It’s hard enough going out there trying to get your golf ball around 18 holes here at this great golf course and just trying to stay in the moment, stay in the present. Of course the big goal this year is to be at Portrush and to play the Open Championship in my hometown. So it’s going to be a special summer, if I can get myself there.”

Only on Tuesday did McDowell learn that the API is part of the Open Qualifying Series. The event offers three spots at Portrush for players not otherwise eligible who finish in the top 10. And this is a course where he already has reason to feel comfortable. He finished T2 in his debut here  in 2005 and was solo second seven years ago to Tiger Woods.

“This tournament’s the reason why I live in Orlando to be honest with you,” he said. “Obviously my wife’s from here too, so she’s probably a bigger reason now,” he added with a cheeky grin.

McDowell’s opening 68 included a bounce back from two early bogeys to post four birdies and an eagle on his way to the house.

“I’ve been working hard on my game the last couple years, starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s a tough old game, these guys are awfully good, these courses are tough, and when you’re a little low on confidence, when you haven’t really seen the things that you expect to see from yourself for awhile, it’s tough to get out of your own way. But I’m trying and I’m very close.”

McDowell turns 40 one week after the Open at Portrush, a confluence of events that might explain his philosophical mood after his round.

“My career so far has been pretty solid. If it ends now, so be it, but I’m going to enjoy what I have while I have it because if it was gone tomorrow, I would miss it,” he said. “I want to be back up there competing with these guys and I do feel like I have some good stuff in me. But I’ve had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple years. Thankfully I’ve came to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it. So, you know what, let’s try and enjoy it while it’s here.

“It’s not an opportunity to beat my head against the wall, it’s an opportunity to try and dig myself out of a hole and look at that challenge as something to be enjoyed and it’s going to be very rewarding when I do get out of it.”

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