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‘Grinding performance’ keeps McDowell in contention as Kiwi Fox sets the early pace

By Brian Keogh

Graeme McDowell put his lost clubs frustrations behind him before finding his links game to keep his hopes of a maiden Dubai Duty Free Irish Open victory alive with a battling back-nine comeback at Ballyliffin.

The former world number four mixed three birdies with five bogeys in his first 10 holes before digging deep on the way home, picking up late birdies at the fourth, sixth and eighth to open with a one-under-par 71.

“It was a grinding performance,” the Portrush man said. “It was one of those days that could have got away, and was happy to keep it under control and post something sort of half-decent.

“I made some nice swings down the stretch, which was pleasing because I struggled early on.”

The former US Open champion has had just one top-10 finish in 16 appearances in the event so he was more than pleased to break par on a day when defending champion Jon Rahm shot a frustrating 74 and Rafa Cabrera Bello a 76.

Rahm struggled to keep his temper in check as he double-bogeyed the 18th and the first — his ninth and 10th — but McDowell found the big Basque great company all day.

“Very talented player,” he said. “He seemed really irritated with himself this morning, not really sure why. He’s such a talented player and I’d expect him to be back firing on all cylinders tomorrow.

“Maybe as defending champion you just put that extra pressure on yourself. That extra expectation level, but he’s such an impressive player. He’s one of those guys who just gets irritated with himself and isn’t destructive for anyone else.”

Meanwhile, Ryan Fox may have grown up playing at Royal Auckland but he said he feels right at home in Ballyliffin.

“I love it,” the New Zealander said after posting a five-under 67 to set the early pace.

“It reminds me quite a lot of home actually. The golf course is a really good test of golf and thankfully I managed to conquer it well enough today.

“The first time I played links golf was a couple of years ago in this part of the world and I love the challenge of it.

“You’ve got to control your ball and think your way around the golf course and sometime that means you can blast away.”

A son of former All Black legend Grant Fox, the Kiwi tied for fourth at Portstewart last year to clinch a place in The Open and he’d love to do the same this year and make it to Carnoustie.

He said: “This Championship was great to me last year and hopefully it’s the same this year and I have three more good days.”

Meanwhile, fans turned up in their droves for the first round in Ballyliffin with 13,716 coming through the gates to bask in the sunshine, stunning scenery and golf yesterday.

While that figure is well down on the record 23,283 people that flocked to Royal Portrush for the opening round in 2012, it’s still a bigger opening day attendance than the 2016 staging of the event at The K Club in Kildare, when just 12,834 spectators turned up.

Belfast Telegraph

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