Graeme McDowell won't be distracted by Portrush prospects after flying start in Orlando
Graeme McDowell insists he can't become obsessed by qualifying for The Open this week despite firing a four-under 68 to roar into contention in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
The 2010 US Open champion (39) desperately wants to play at Royal Portrush in July - the course where he learned the game as a member of Rathmore.
But while there are spots on offer for the top-three non-exempt players in the top 10 this week, McDowell knows he can't afford to heap more pressure on his shoulders after losing his PGA Tour card last year.
"I haven't played very well historically with a gun to my head," said the former World No.4, now 259th in the world rankings and playing on a sponsor's invitation this week.
"I haven't done a good job the last couple years of just trying to get certain things out of my head, like trying to get into the top 125 in the FedEx Cup and get myself back up in the top 100 in the world.
"But I've had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple years. Thankfully, I've came to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it. So, you know what, let's try and enjoy it while it's here.
"Of course the big goal this year is to be at Portrush and to play The Open Championship in my home town six weeks after the US Open at Pebble Beach. So it's going to be a special summer if I can get myself there.
"The game's there, I've just got to get out of my own way and have a little fun with it and not have things like that rattle around in my head."
Spain's Rafa Cabrera Bello shot a seven-under 65 to lead by two shots from Keegan Bradley with McDowell a further shot back after combining some excellent play from tee to green with clinical putting.
As playing partner Shane Lowry made six birdies and four bogeys in an encouraging, two-under 70, McDowell showed he's still a dangerous player at a challenging venue where he finished second in both 2005 and 2012.
"I'm starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel," McDowell said after following bogeys at the second and third with four birdies in his next seven holes and an eagle three from 16 feet at the 16th.
"It's really important that you hit fairways this week here at Bay Hill. So the big key today was getting the ball in play and my iron play was pretty sharp after that and I made some putts too."
Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy began his defence of the tournament with a level-par 72, that was only rescued late in his round thanks to birdies at the 16th and 17th holes.
The World No.6, who has started 2019 with four consecutive top-five finishes, struggled to get any momentum going as he combined four bogeys with four birdies.
The Holywood man could have finished with three consecutive birdies only to see his putt at the 18th cruelly lip out.
"It's probably a fair reflection, I hit some pretty wayward shots out there," McIlroy said.
"It would have been nice to shoot under par, but I'm only three shots off the top-10 and with the forecast the way it is, this course will dry up, and it's already playing pretty tricky as it is.
"It's a marathon, not a sprint, and there's a long way to go. Hopefully I can go out there tomorrow, shoot a good one and be right there for the weekend."
On the European Tour, Gavin Moynihan made six birdies in an adventurous one-under 71 to share 38th, four shots behind pacesetters Adri Arnaus and Justin Walters in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
Team Ireland's Neil O'Briain was tied for 25th, five shots behind South Africa's JC Ritchie, after opening with a two-under 70 in the Sunshine Tour's Limpopo Championship.