Graeme McDowell shares US Open lead at Pinehurst
Graeme McDowell celebrated confirmation of the Open Championship's return to his home course of Portrush by claiming a share of the clubhouse lead in the US Open on Thursday.
McDowell fired an eagle, one birdie and one bogey to shoot an opening 68 at Pinehurst, joining American Kevin Na at the top of the leaderboard on two under par.
Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who can overtake Adam Scott as world number one by claiming his first major title on Sunday, was among a six-strong group in the clubhouse on one under as the early starters made the most of more receptive greens than had been expected.
And six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, looking to become only the sixth player to win all four major titles, was another shot back on level par alongside England's Ian Poulter and Ryder Cup hopeful Joost Luiten.
Sheffield amateur Matt Fitzpatrick briefly held a share of the lead after starting with two birdies in his first three holes, the 19-year-old eventually signing for a 71 despite a penalty shot on his penultimate hole when his ball moved as he prepared to play his third shot.
That was still one better than playing partner and defending champion Justin Rose, who at least recovered from being four over par at the turn. Former champion Rory McIlroy was alongside Fitzpatrick on one over after struggling to get the pace of the greens.
McDowell admitted the early starters had enjoyed the luck of the draw and benefitted from tournament officials deciding to water the course after the expected rain failed to materialise.
"I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, knowing that this golf course wasn't going to give much and it was only going to take," said 2010 champion McDowell, who holed from 10 feet for eagle on the fifth after a superb three-wood approach from 248 yards. "I really felt like I got my head in the right place the last few days.
"It wasn't my best ball-striking display this morning, but you don't have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times, and with a tiny bit more moisture this morning we got lucky.
"In practice yesterday the golf course seemed to be very firm, kind of a weekend set up. I guess the USGA were really relying on some rain last night, which didn't come.
"I'm assuming they put some water on this place this morning and we were able to take advantage of that a little bit early on, and actually think about getting at some of those flags."
Speaking about the Open Championship returning to Portrush in 2019 - it was last staged there in 1951 - McDowell, whose brother Gary is on the greenkeeping staff at the club, added: "That's extremely exciting.
"I've been kind of hesitant to comment because I really didn't want to take anything away from the official announcement (the R&A are holding a press conference in Portrush on Monday).
"I'm very proud of where I grew up. I'm very proud of the tradition and history there and to bring an Open Championship back to Northern Ireland is very special. It speaks volumes about how far the country has come.
"It's going to be a very special thing for Northern Ireland and Ireland in general. I just hope I'm exempt and playing well. It's been a dream of mine as a kid. I've spent many an hour out there as a kid and dreaming of playing major championships. To have a major championship come to Portrush, (especially) the Open Championship is special stuff.
"It's the result of a lot of gentle ribbing in the direction of Mr Dawson (R&A chief executive Peter Dawson) the last four or five years from myself and (Rory) McIlroy and (Darren) Clarke. Nice to see the fruits of our labour, I suppose."