2011 U.S. Open: Reigning champion Graeme McDowell gets off to a strong start

Will it be Graeme McDowell? Will he be the one to step in and fill the gaping maw left when He Who Shall Not Be Named limped off golf’s stage to try to rehab his knee, his swing and his psyche, in whatever order he can manage?

McDowell earned a spot on the short list of stars-in-waiting with a victory a year ago in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Back-to-back Opens would garner a lot of attention. With an early tee time (7:55 a.m.) and playing in the traditional pairing of 2010 Open champ, 2010 U.S. Amateur champion (Peter Uihlein) and defending British Open champion (Louis Oosthuizen), McDowell got off to a strong start Thursday, shooting a 1-under-par 70. Any defending champion-type butterflies that might have lingered were gone after a bogey on the first hole.

“Of course I was excited to come here, but I was also excited to maybe close a chapter that was the last 12 months and try and start talking about the future rather than talking about the past,” McDowell admitted. “I feel like I’ve spent the last three months talking about Pebble and defending my Open title, and so somehow coming here this week, I really felt that I had already sort of did all the talking and I was ready to move forward.”

Golf could use that kind of garrulousness as well. McDowell seems to have no problem answering any question, sometimes two or three times over, and he’s not afraid to admit to weakness or failure, either.

Defending any title — much less a major championship — is a minefield of added pressure and extra commitments. Add to that the fact that McDowell’s Open win came at Pebble Beach, that it was the first by a European player since 1970 and the first by a Northern Irishman ever. And then cap it off a few months later with the putt that clinched a Ryder Cup victory for the European side, and, well, perhaps he bit off more than he could chew.

He has three top-10 finishes this season, but in his past five PGA Tour events, he missed three cuts, tied for 61st at the Heritage and for 33rd at the Players Championship, so he didn’t exactly arrive in Bethesda on a hot streak.

McDowell said he’s not big on regrets, but “perhaps I would have come into the 2011 season and tried to do a little less off the golf course and really tried to focus back in my golf game. . . . I wasn’t swinging it the same way, I wasn’t feeling the same way. Sometimes a run of momentum and adrenaline sort of has to hit a brick wall, as I guess I hit my brick wall. I’ve been trying to get over that wall ever since.”

Then, being McDowell, he talked himself around to a different answer — while still addressing the same question.

“I don’t think — I have no regrets about the last 12 months,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every second of it. Yeah, I’ve hit a rough patch here the last three months, but I’ve really felt my game coming around the last four or five weeks.”

Whether it’s McDowell or someone else — countryman Rory McIlroy, perhaps, so close to winning the Masters this spring — now is the time for someone in golf to step to the fore. Tiger Woods may be out of golf for one month, or he may be out forever, but his absence is as discussed as his presence. A golfer with two good knees, some charisma and a dramatic finish or two could make some hay. Because while Woods is gone, his image is the first that popped up Thursday when I visited www.pgatour.com.

McDowell said after Tuesday’s practice round that he thought par might win the Open this year. He hadn’t changed his assessment after Thursday’s first round. Fluctuating weather changed the course somewhat over his 18 holes and it continued to evolve, as morning drizzle turned to partly cloudy skies and muggy air in the afternoon to pouring rain in the evening. That firmed up the greens, which McDowell said showed the effects of Washington’s particularly wet spring.

“They’ve obviously taken this golf course to the edge to try to dry it as much as they can,” he said. “There are certain areas of the greens that you can see are under stress, they’re very stressed. Parts of the greens were firm. They’re doing a job at the minute. It will be interesting to see if this wind continues to dry them out.”

No matter. Hard or soft greens, low scores or high, McDowell’s 12 months of being introduced at every first tee as defending U.S. Open champion may come to an end. He seems to be at peace, whatever the outcome. He shipped the trophy to the USGA well before the tournament came to town, so when he was asked Thursday if he would kiss it goodbye, he said, “I didn’t. I’m not really that sentimental.” (The trophy could not be reached to comment.)

Sentimental or not, McDowell likely would love another year with that trophy. But it’s not eating at him, the pressure and the expectations. Whatever happens in the next three rounds, McDowell won’t use any of that as an excuse.

“The weight was off my shoulders Monday morning,” he said. “Something happened when I was here on Sunday night. And I felt great on the golf course Monday. And I felt good out there today.”

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