PINEHURST, N.C. — Graeme McDowell watched countryman and playing partner Rory McIlroy boom shot after shot, attacking the treacherous greens at Pinehurst No. 2 every chance he got.
Was McDowell tempted to try the same?
Not at all.
McDowell hardly dazzled with the way he struck the ball, but kept putting it right where he wanted, setting up a 2-under 68 that left him solidly in contention at the U.S. Open on Thursday.
“I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, really knowing that this golf course wasn't going to give much and it was only going to take,” said McDowell, looking for the second Open title of his career after winning at Pebble Beach in 2010.
He stumbled only once Thursday with a bogey at the 529-yard fourth, the longest par 4 at Pinehurst. He bounced right back with an eagle at the par-5 fifth, made his lone birdie of the round at the 14th, and put down par on everything else.
McDowell held a share of the lead much of the day, until Martin Kaymer birdied three of the last five holes for a 65. Still, this was just the sort of round McDowell had in mind when coming up with a game plan.
“It wasn't my best ball-striking display,” he said. “You don't have to strike it amazing around here. You just have to position the ball correctly at all times.”
The 34-year-old from Northern Ireland played in a group with two other former U.S. Open champions, McIlroy and Webb Simpson.
McIlroy kept hitting it farther than his countryman, which is usually the case. But that wasn't a huge advantage on a course with narrow fairways tinged with brown at the edges, areas that presented all sorts of hazards, and sloping greens that send most approach shots sliding away from the cup.
McIlroy settled for a 71.
“I played the golf course very conservatively, if you compare my round to Rory's round,” McDowell said. “I generally kept the ball exactly where I wanted going into the flags, short of a lot of greens but on the correct side of most of the flags.”
After the bogey at No. 4, McDowell unleashed one of his better tee shots of the round at the next hole. That was followed by a 3-wood that spun up onto the green, stopping about 12 feet short of the flag. He sank the uphill putt for an unexpected eagle.
At most of the holes, McDowell was content to just grind it out. He is aware that the past two Open champions, Justin Rose a year ago and Simpson in 2012, claimed the title with scores above par. McDowell certainly remembers his own victory four years ago, when even-par was good enough for the win.
“This golf course is difficult, and good shots are going to finish in bad spots,” he said. “I think the winner of this tournament is going to make 10 to 12 birdies, maximum. That's only three a round. That's what I mean by preparing yourself mentally for the fact that you're not going to get a pat on the back very often at this golf course.”
McIlroy was impressed by McDowell's performance.
“He gets the most out of it, misses it in the right places, has a really good short game and holes big momentum putts to keep his run going,” McIlroy said. “He always seems to be able to make those. This is his ideal sort of tournament — grinding it out, and the winning score not being too much under par. He knows how to do that well.”