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McDowell's Saudi International defence off to shaky start in brutal conditions as Horsey flirts with history


Graeme McDowell

Graeme McDowell

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Graeme McDowell

Graeme McDowell opened the defence of his Saudi International crown with a level-par 70 at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City.

The Rathmore man carded four birdies, and at one point was at two-under, but a late double bogey and a further bogey left him needing a birdie on his final hole to finish even in the tough afternoon conditions in Saudi Arabia.

McDowell, who held off World No.1 Dustin Johnson to win this event last year, is nine shots off England's David Horsey, who holds a one-stroke lead after taking advantage of the easier morning weather to shoot a nine-under 61.

It was bad luck for G-Mac, who was very much on the wrong side of the draw, which saw nobody in the afternoon groups shoot better than Ian Poulter's three-under.

After relatively calm conditions in the desert for the first half of the field, the wind picked up considerably in the afternoon, making playing conditions much tougher for the later starters, including McDowell.

The 41-year-old had started finely on the front nine with a birdie at the par-five fourth, but he gave that shot back at the ninth to turn in level, before picking up some nice momentum with birdies at 10 and 12.

However, just when it looked like he was getting going, McDowell tripped up with a double bogey at the par-four 13th and then dropped a further shot at the 15th to slip back to +1, but he rescued his afternoon somewhat by picking up a birdie at the par-five 18th to finish the day where he started.

The former US Open winner will need a good second round on Friday to make the halfway cut, which would be the first step towards realising his dream of making this year's European Ryder Cup team while also improving his World No.91 ranking to try and earn an invite to April's Masters.

Ardglass' Cormac Sharvin, playing his first tournament of the year, needed two late birdies to also start the event with a level-par 70 in Saudi Arabia in an up-and-down round.

The 28-year-old opened with a birdie at his first hole, but back-to-back bogeys at the seventh and eighth, combined with a birdie at 10, left him at even-par just after the turn.

Two more bogeys at the 11th and 13th followed to leave him well off the pace, but Sharvin recovered superbly with birdies at 15 and 17 to haul himself back to level-par where he too will hope to kick on in his second round.

Open champion Shane Lowry is at level-par alongside the Northern Irish pair after a fairly uneventful first round, mixing just one birdie at the 15th with one bogey at the second.

Meanwhile, Paul Dunne had looked on track for a good round at two-under thru 12 until a quadruple bogey at 13th ruined his scorecard, eventually signing for a three-over 73 and struggling to stick around for the weekend.

In contrast, the excellent Horsey leads the way after flirting with a 59 but eventually having to settle for a nine-under 61 to lead by one from Scotland's Stephen Gallacher.

Horsey needed an eagle down the 18th to become only the second player on the European Tour to break 60 but could only manage a par, but he will be delighted with a bogey-free round that saw him pick up seven birdies on his inward nine.

Gallacher is one shot further back at eight-under after a 62, with Austria's Bernd Wiesberger six-under and a five-strong group at five-under, including big-hitting American Bryson DeChambeau.

World No.1 Dustin Johnson opened with a three-under 67, as did England's Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood and France's Victor Perez, with Patrick Reed - who won last week's Farmers Insurance Open - at one-under.

A host of talented players are at two-under-par, including Phil Mickelson, Viktor Hovland, Tony Finau and Tommy Fleetwood, while Paul Casey - who won last week's Omega Dubai Desert Classic - is at level-par.

Belfast Telegraph