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Graeme McDowell happy to avoid usual first-day woe

By Karl MacGinty

Graeme McDowell showed why he's regarded as one of the toughest characters in world golf by fighting his way out of a tight corner at Augusta National to grind out his best opening round in five years at The Masters.

As he slipped to two-over through 11, McDowell was well into ‘Amen Corner' in every respect. Yet he rallied bravely down the stretch to post an even-par 72, which ranks with a 69 in 2009 as one of only two times he has matched or beaten par on Thursday in Augusta.

“Generally, I've been feeling comfortable this week, probably the most comfortable I've felt around this course,” said the Ulsterman, who's made the cut in just two of six previous appearances at the Masters.

“I didn't try to overdo it in practice or be too perfect,” he added.

“I know this course now; you play it well, you hit it to your spots and you chip and you putt and you try to enjoy the test for what it is.

“It's a challenge. It's going to eat you up. It's going to throw you bad breaks. That's just Augusta. I tried to embrace it and have fun with it this morning and I did that well.”

Delighted with the firm and fast conditions, McDowell believes they give him his best-ever chance of getting into the shakedown on Sunday.

“I don't feel like it's been like that the last three or four years since this golf course has got longer.

“It's probably set up worse and worse for a guy like me. I need a little release in these fairways and I need the greens to be probably fairly punishing for the other guys.

“They are still a tad receptive today. I'll look for them to be firm and fast tomorrow.”

McDowell's problems yesterday were principally with the putter, in contrast to his performance in leading the PGA Tour's ‘Putts Gained' category, the ultimate measure of a man's performance with the flat iron.

There was foreboding in a tweet issued yesterday morning by the Portrush man. “Not breaking us in gently with the day one pin positions at the Masters,” he wrote, adding: “Some tough ones at five, 10 and 16.”

Prophetic is probably a more appropriate word, considering one of McDowell's three three-putts came from about 40 feet at that 10th hole, where he left himself an 11-footer back for par.

Still, McDowell's putter got him out of a tight corner at the opening hole. After hitting his tee shot into mid-fairway, G-Mac missed the green right, his ball coming to a rest in a swale with a large hump between him and the flag.

Opting for the ‘Texas Wedge', he hit the putt with perfect pace to the top of the slope. It then trickled onto the putting surface, gathering pace as it rolled five feet beyond the cup. McDowell holed it for a sweet par save.

Confidence is a precious, but fragile commodity at Augusta and McDowell's appeared to be rocked on the second.

On the green in two, he three-putted from 40 feet, missing from five feet after drilling his first effort past the cup. Inevitably, he left his 20-footer for birdie from the front edge of the green at the next a good 36 inches short.

Back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11, where he drove into trouble, left McDowell facing the prospect of yet another painful start to the Masters.

Yet he was equal to the challenge. The doughty Ulsterman holed an 11-footer from the left fringe for a fighting four at 13 after hitting the high right fringe in two at this iconic par-five before polishing off a 10-foot birdie putt at 17.

There was only a slight hint of disappointment in the 34-year-old as he described his three-putt “down the marble staircase” from 45 feet to the right of the green for a five at 15. However, in view of the first-round setbacks he has endured here in the past, this was a satisfying day's work.

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