McDowell simmering nicely at Wales Open, where Horne leads by one

graeme mcdowell
Getty Images
Graeme McDowell didn't have to play the 18th hole at Celtic Manor after clinching the Ryder Cup on the 17th green last fall, but he parred the finishing hole on Thursday.
By
PA Sport

Series:

The atmosphere was never going to compare to last October's Ryder Cup, but Graeme McDowell and Peter Hanson found Celtic Manor a happy hunting ground again on Thursday.

Paired together for the opening round of the European Tour’s Saab Wales Open, the Swede fired a 6-under-par 65 to tuck in just behind first-round leader South African Keith Horne.

Defending champion McDowell, meanwhile, improved five shots on his start last year with a 67 that included a 30-foot eagle putt on the 15th, but "only" a par on the hole with which he is most associated.

"It's a tough second shot past my statue there," McDowell joked about the 499-yard 16th, the scene of the most important birdie he has ever made and probably will ever make. "I hit it to about 20 feet and thought I made it, but I guess I've used all my magic up on that green."

There was enough good stuff, though, to boost his belief that he will not need a 64-63 finish this time to head into his U.S. Open title defense on the back of another win.

"It's all simmering nicely,” McDowell said of his game. “I need to get into the mix this weekend and get the old juices flowing again."

As it was last year, this is McDowell's final tune-up event for the second major of the season.

"I've definitely got three or four days of chilling out planned next week -- maybe go and wear out a groove in my mum's couch in Portrush,” he said. "I'm going to fly to Orlando Thursday and Pete (coach Pete Cowen) is coming in Friday."

Hanson also has a base at Lake Nona -- "I can probably hit a 7-iron to his house," he said -- and like McDowell a year ago at Pebble Beach is relieved just to be playing at Congressional in a couple of weeks.

The world's top 50 as of May 23 automatically qualified, and he was 50th by 0.01 ranking points over Australian Aaron Baddeley. McDowell made it the same way by 0.05 points in 2010.

Hanson had eight birdies to Horne's seven on Thursday, but there were also bogeys at the 13th and eighth on his card.

Horne, 289th in the world, didn’t turn professional until he was 25, and only last year did he, now age 40, keep his European Tour card.

Coming home in a 5-under 30 put him top of the leaderboard, but he was at pains to stress that one of those shots was not a shank.

Bunkered off the tee at the driveable 15th, he explained: "I had about 40 yards and I just couldn't get a sand wedge or wedge at it to get it that far, so I hit a 9-iron and it just came out straight right. Didn't work -- but not a shank!"

Ross Fisher and Miguel Angel Jimenez are the other two members of last year's European side taking part.

Fisher, who needs to be back in the world's top 50 from his current 52nd by a week from Sunday if he is to play in the U.S. Open, had a level-par 71, but Jimenez managed only a 73.

The Spaniard was paired with Colin Montgomerie, but four days after his first top-10 finish for almost three years -- seventh in the BMW PGA Championship -- the 47-year-old Montgomerie was twice in the water over the closing stretch and signed for a 77.

Alo Thursday, Elliot Saltman, the Scottish golfer just back from a three-month European Tour ban, made a hole-in-one at the 211-yard 17th -- the hole made famous as where McDowell beat Hunter Mahan to decide the Ryder Cup last October -- and Saltman followed it with another eagle at the 575-yard last.

However, Saltman was left wishing his shot had come an hour earlier at the 189-yard 13th. One of the sponsors' cars is the prize there, whereas his reward was a magnum of champagne.

The 29-year-old, whose suspension was imposed after both his playing partners questioned how he replaced his ball during a Challenge Tour event last season, finished with a 2-over-par 73, the same score as his brother Lloyd.