Graeme McDowell took an instant liking to the Red Sea shoreline course to muscle his way to the top of the board on day one of the Saudi International.
McDowell birdied four holes in succession from his second hole and while he doubled the 11th, the Irishman stormed home on the back of three closing birdies in a round of 64 for a share of the lead at six-under.
Malaysian Gavin Green, who boasts an Irish-born great grandfather, was the very first to tee off in shooting a 64 before being joined late in the day by McDowell on the desert-like Royal Green layout located some 75-minute drive north of Jeddah.
“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,” he said
“I was just feeding off Phil (Mickelson) finishing who grabbed 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.”
GMac is currently the World No. 104 while he’s well down in 38th place on the ‘World’ points table in qualifying for the 2020 European Ryder Cup team.
However he admits that the efforts of 46-year old Lee Westwood, a fellow 2018 European vice-captain, in capturing last fortnight’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is helping inspire McDowell in his goal to be heading to Whistling Straits packing his golf clubs.
“What Lee is doing is inspiring and that is the beauty about this sport as you can continue to play well into your 40s, and while there maybe peaks and troughs, you just have to keep grinding,” said McDowell.
“I can only speak for me personally as I have had a little injection of focus and motivation since the summer of last year as I didn’t think I played well enough but then since last August, when I started with new coach Kevin Kirk, he’s really changed my approach to what I am doing.
“Nothing technical, just more practicing and thinking better, and also preparing myself better and getting myself back to what I used to do very well and to come to an event as one of the best prepared players teeing-up in an event.
“So, what I may lack in talent I try and make-up for with good preparation and great approach to the tournament.
“I had a very strong finish to the season last year and had a lot of positives going into the short off-season, and came out in Hawaii to finish fourth and had it going in Dubai last week but finished in an ambulance on Friday.
“It was just nice to continue the good stuff into today’s round getting off to a great start which is important to do on this golf course and then hung in well over the back nine to finish birdie, birdie, birdie.”
McDowell, as mentioned above, is contesting the first two rounds alongside five-time Major winning Mickelson, with ‘Lefty’ still looking for the one Major that McDowell won a decade ago this June to join just five others to win all four.
Mickelson had been two-over through three holes but turned that around with nine birdies and four bogeys over the remaining 15 holes in a score of a four-under 66.
And having played last year’s US Open at Pebble Beach alongside McDowell, the current World No. 86 spoke of his joy in competing in McDowell’s company.
“It was fun to again play with Graeme as he played really solid today with great control of his ball, and turned it into a great round,” said Mickelson.
“I know we last played alongside each other at Pebble and it’s good to see nothing has changed with his game as he looked very steady and made some great putts, as well.”
Shane Lowry was two groups behind McDowell and was two-under par playing the last but leaked his second shot right onto rocks on the edge of a lake-like feature running all the way down the left side of the par-5 18th.
Lowry was inside the hazard and having a shot but didn’t catch the ball fully only to see it hit the slope at the side of the green and roll back into the hazard.
Now with no shot, Lowry had to take a penalty drop in taking a bogey for a one-under par 69.
Lowry is grouped alongside World No. 1 Brooks Koepka with the duo having fun in each other’s company as evident when the American birdied the ninth, the duo celebrated as Koepka fought his way to a score of 70.
In contrast, Ardglass pro Cormac Sharvin managed the only birdie in his round at the 18th before signing for a five-over par 75.