KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia: Veteran Graeme McDowell, trying to refocus to keep up with the demanding life on tour in his forties, caught early finishing Gavin Green at the top of the leaderboard on 6-under after the first round on Thursday in the Saudi International golf tournament.
“It’s focus and motivation since last year in the summer. I really do feel I didn’t play well enough. I got myself new coach, kind of changed my approach to what I’m doing. Nothing major technical, just more on practicing better and thinking better, preparing myself better … I’m getting back to doing what I used to do very well, which was to come out as one of the best prepared players in the field. Because what I lack in talent I make up for with good preparation,” said the 40-year-old from Northern Ireland of his opening day effort of 64 that matched the Malaysian’s card.
McDowell birdied the last three holes and had a chance to overtake the 26-year-old Green but his long eagle putt on No. 18 grazed the left side of the hole.
“It was nice to get out of there with 6-under par because I felt like I played great today. It would have been a horrible round to let get away but to finish birdie, birdie, birdie was nice, just feeding off Phil (Mickelson) finishing with seven birdies on the back nine. It was Phil the thrill out there. It was fun to watch him and fun to play with him,” said McDowell.
Swedish veteran Henrik Stenson, nicknamed The Iceman, kept his cool in the glorious sunshine at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City to shoot 65 — one off the lead — in a group that included fellow countryman Sebastian Soderberg, Spain’s Adri Arnaus, France’s Victor Perez and Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas.
Stenson’s encouraging start gave him a good chance of making up for a missed cut, along with Soderberg, in last year’s tournament inaugural.
“I certainly putted well. It was a lot of fighting and a lot of scrambling and some really good two-putts and chip shots around the greens. Probably the scorecard is a little tidier than I feel I played out there today,” Stenson said.
US star Mickelson, making his debut in this second edition of the European Tour’s Middle East swing, was in a big group at 66, just two shots off the joint leaders.
Mickelson said: “On the back nine, things really started to come together. Meaning I hit a lot of good shots. I started making the putts, and made a lot of birdies, and it was just a good back nine that gave me a good chance heading into tomorrow. I feel like my game is a lot sharper than I’ve been scoring, so it was nice having that back nine.”
Commenting on his eight-birdie round of 64, Green said: “Played solid. Really a few mistakes here and there, which is pretty normal. A couple of pretty big par saves, and a couple of mistakes, a couple of three-putts, which was tough to take in because I was playing well and I was playing solid. Just a couple slipped off. You know, it’s the nature of the game. You just have to live with it and move on, and that’s what we did. We closed off strong, birdied 16, 17. Had a look at 18. Had a nasty little lip-out but it is what it is. I’ll take it.”
Defending champion and world No. 5 Dustin Johnson of the US kept himself in the hunt at -3 with six others in a packed leaderboard, as the elite field of 132 players slug it out in Friday’s second round to try to make the cut for the weekend in chase of prize money totaling $3.5 million.
Of the Saudi trio and local favorites, professional Othman Almulla and amateurs Saud Alsharif and Faisal Salhab, it was the Kingdom’s first and only pro thus far that has a fighting chance to make the cut after shooting 5-over 75.
“It was an interesting day. This was actually the first time in a long time I’ve felt comfortable on the golf course. Having a nightmare last week actually put me in a much, much better position mentally to go out and perform this week. Obviously five-over par still isn’t good enough, but I can take a lot of positives from today — especially in how I struck the ball,” said Almulla.
“If I can go out and continue to put myself in a position where I feel comfortable with my ball-striking, and I give myself opportunities, I think I can take another step up in my career.”
For debuting Salhab, he said: “It’s a good experience. It’s a bad experience. I was really disappointed. I’m hitting good shots but I can’t cash in.”