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Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell is searching for his third career European Tour win and first major. (Photo: Getty Images)
Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell is searching for his third career European Tour win and first major. (Photo: Getty Images)

Graeme Slam: McDowell charges into lead with 6-under 66

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell posted the prettiest round of the day Thursday at the Open Championship, a bogey-free 6-under 66 that gave him the lead after the opening day at Hoylake. His lead was not solid, though, as 16 players were within two shots of him.

By T.J. Auclair, Junior Editor

HOYLAKE, England -- The Open Championship has a knack for producing unlikely leaders in the early going. This 135th edition of golf's oldest championship at Royal Liverpool is no different.

A European has not won the Open since 1999, when Scotland's Paul Lawrie took the claret jug in a playoff at Carnoustie. If things continue to go the way they did on Thursday, that will change.

At the end of the first round, Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell, one of the rising stars in Europe at age 26, delivered the round of the day with a tidy, bogey-free 6-under-par 66, which was good for the lead on a benign day by the Irish Sea. His six birdies came on Nos. 5, 7, 9, 10, 11 and 16. Surprisingly, he missed a birdie putt inside of eight feet on the last hole, which played as the third-easiest of the first round.

"It excites me, you know, it's fantastic," said McDowell of having the first-round lead. "Playing in the practice round there on Monday and Tuesday or something, and they kind of had your name up as you were playing 18 and it was right at the top, and I was looking up thinking that would be pretty nice to see that this weekend.

"Obviously, coming down today and seeing that was a lot of fun. I know it's Thursday, but still, it excites me," he added. "I know I'm playing well enough, I just want to be up there on Sunday and enjoy myself coming down the last hole. It would be pretty nice."

McDowell's 66 was one shot better than a pair of Englishmen -- Greg Owen and Anthony Wall -- Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, Japan's Keiichiro Fukabori and -- look out -- two-time winner and defending champion Tiger Woods.

Woods, who missed the cut in a major for the first time as a professional at last month's U.S. Open, knocked in an 18-footer for eagle on the final hole to claw within one shot of the lead. A win here would make Woods the first back-to-back winner of the Open since Tom Watson turned the trick in 1982-1983.

"I hit 2-iron off the tee, then I hit 4-iron into the green and I had a putt, and as I said earlier, I don't know who it was, but someone made that same putt earlier this morning," said Woods, describing his closing eagle. "I was watching it on the telecast. It doesn't break at the end, it holds its line. I played it on the right edge. I hit it and it held its line all the way there. Normally I would have given that hole away if I hadn't seen that putt earlier in the morning."

Woods' round was impressive, especially considering his three-putt for bogey on the first hole. That would be the only bogey on his card.

Owen and Wall were each thrilled with their starts, and shared the clubhouse lead for most of the day until McDowell and Jimenez posted their scores later in the day.

"Obviously it's nice to be back in England and playing only two hours down the road from where I live," said Owen, who was snubbed out of a spot in the 2005 Open after an incident in which the Royal and Ancient Golf Club didn't honor his world ranking because he pulled out of an Open qualifier. "It's nice to have a few friends and family, because I don't get many in the states. But it's nice to come back, feel the support."

"It's the total unknown quantity," said Wall, attributing what at the time was his share of the lead to the fact that this venue is new to the entire field. "No one really knows how to play here. There have been no big events here for some time. But it is a quality golf course. If you play well, you will score well, there's no messing around that."

McDowell was two shots better than a group of 13 players that included Sergio Garcia and Mark Hensby, as well as major winners Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els and 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Tom Lehman.

Hensby, an outspoken 35-year-old Aussie who has ruffled the feathers of his countrymen and other players alike, is a one-time winner on the PGA Tour (2004 John Deere Classic) who has missed his last six cuts. After making a triple-bogey on No. 3 when he drove out of bounds to the right, Hensby rallied with birdies at Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 11 before closing his opening round on a birdie on the par-5 18th.

The 34-year-old Owen, of course, is most well-known for his unfortunate collapse at Bay Hill earlier this season, when he three-putted from three feet on the 71st hole and then bogeyed the 72nd hole to hand the trophy to Rodney Pampling. Coincidentally, the two played together in the first round of the Open. Pampling eagled the final hole for a 69.

"It still hurts now even thinking about it," Owen said, recalling his experience at Bay Hill. "But it's golf. You probably all play it and you all know that things happen, a bad bounce here or there or anywhere, and I just hope I'll never do it again. It may happen, it may not. But I take a lot more care lately. I've got a lot of sympathy from people and I think it raised my profile. And I made a good check, as well."

To his credit, Owen bounced back the following week to post a top-25 finish at the Players Championship. His only start on the European Tour this season came last week at the Barclays Scottish Open where he tied for 14th.

At Royal Liverpool on Thursday morning Owen made just one bogey, which came at the par-4 12th. He made his birdies on Nos. 5, 8, 13, 14, 16 and 18.

Owen has just one win in his career. That came at the 2003 Daily Telegraph Damovo British Masters on the European Tour.

Wall is a 31-year-old who is enjoying a successful season on the European Tour with four top 10s this year, including two second-place finishes.

Wall had the lead to himself at 6-under after an eagle on the par-5 16th, but bogeyed 17 to go back to 5-under and followed it up with a par at the par-5 last, which felt like a bogey.

A who's-who of major championship winners the leader board was not in the early going, as South Korea's S.K. Ho, Australia's Marcus Frasar and Finland's Mikko Ilonen who were the first players in with rounds of 4-under 68.

Frasar, a 27-year-old European Tour member playing in his second Open, made a birdie putt from roughly 12 feet on the par-5 18th to post his 68. His best finish this season came just a few weeks ago at the French Open, where he tied for third. He entered this Open after missing the cut last week in the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.

Ho, who played his first nine holes in 3-under 32 to grab the early lead, is a 33-year-old member of the Japan Golf Tour appearing in his fourth Open Championship. He birdied Nos. 2, 5 and 8 then added another at No. 10 to set the early pace.

Ho was the winner of the Gateway to The Open Mizuno on the Japan Golf Tour in late June, but has missed the cut in all three of the European Tour events he's entered this season.

Ilonen is a 26-year-old member of the European Challenge Tour, who actually captured the British Amateur here at Royal Liverpool in 2000. Ilonen is playing in his fourth Open this week. He tied for ninth at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 2001.

Three-time major winner Phil Mickelson finished his first round with a 3-under-par 69 and was two off the lead with a large group of players, including Pampling, Robert Allenby, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke.

The tournament's first threesome of Peter Hedblom, Steve Elkington and Jerry Kelly was scheduled to tee off at 6:30 a.m. local time, but was pushed back to 7:00 a.m. because of a 30-minute rain delay. All three players managed to hit the narrow fairway on the 454-yard par-4 first hole to get golf's oldest championship under way.

By 8:15 a.m. local time, the skies had begun to clear and the temperature was beginning to creep back up to what it was earlier in the week.

The forecast called for mostly cloudy skies until around 11:00 a.m., then more rain was predicted to fall until 4:00 p.m. However, the skies remained dry and the sun could be seen peeking through the scattered clouds through most of the day.

The rain was the first real weather to hit the Open in three years. A heavy rain hit Royal Troon in 2004 but did not affect play.

The scenario playing out Thursday was exactly the same as the last time the Open was played at Royal Liverpool 39 years ago. In 1967, Monday through Wednesday featured glorious weather but then a heavy thunderstorm hit late Wednesday night.

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