Rory and G-Mac are finding top form at the right time
Two Ulstermen share a common goal this weekend in Hamilton, Ontario, but both need to achieve it for very different reasons.
For Rory McIlroy, this is the chance to bounce back from a rare missed cut at the Memorial Tournament a week ago and, at the same time, gain some form and confidence heading into next week's US Open at Pebble Beach.
He certainly did that with an impressive three-under par 67 at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, a solid round on his first appearance at the event.
But the better round belonged to Graeme McDowell, who has the same objective, but also the added motivation this week that the top three finishers at the Hamilton Country Club will qualify for The Open Championship at Royal Portrush - provided they are not already in the field - and the Portrush native has made no secret of his desire to be on that first tee on the Dunluce links next month.
Right now, McDowell is firmly in the mix for one of those spots having opened with a five-under par 65 that sees him tied for the last of the three places on offer.
The 2011 PGA champion Keegan Bradley holds the overnight lead, his bogey-free 63 putting him one shot clear of Sungjae Im, Nick Taylor - the leading Canadian in the field - and Erik van Rooyen, while Offaly's Shane Lowry is also among the chasing pack at six-under par.
Lowry carded just one bogey in his round, adding seven birdies as he continued his fine recent form that has seen him record top-eight finishes at both the RBC Heritage and the US PGA Championship.
"I pretty much hit the ball where I wanted to and holed a few putts, so it was nice," said Lowry.
His lone bogey came on the seventh, when his drive landed in a divot and the resulting approach spun back off the green.
"You get breaks like that and for the rest of the day, it was fairly stress-free, and I managed to roll in a few putts, which is always nice," he added.
The story of the day, however, was McDowell, who both started and finished well as he outlined his Portrush credentials with a fine opening round.
It helped that he got a massive confidence boost on his opening hole, playing the course the right way round, by draining a 34-foot putt from the edge of the green for birdie, and that was quickly followed by back-to-back birdies at the fourth and fifth - with the Rathmore man draining another 31-footer for his birdie at the fourth.
A wild approach that struck a spectator on the seventh led to McDowell dropping a shot, meaning the 39-year-old made the turn in two-under, but his back nine started in the same way as his front nine as he rolled in a 21-foot putt for birdie.
Steady golf saw McDowell maintain his good position before a blistering finish thrust him into the picture, hitting the par-five 17th in two for a two-putt birdie before draining a nine-footer on the last to card a five-under 65.
World No.4 McIlroy was among the early starters in Ontario, and his round got started early too as he jumped straight out of the blocks on his first hole, the 10th, by firing a wedge to five feet from 79 yards for an opening birdie.
That shot would be given back at the 12th, but another nice approach at the par-four 14th from just 131 yards yielded another birdie for the Holywood man, which he followed up with another birdie, this time after hitting the par-five 17th in two.
Turning in two-under, McIlroy rolled in a nice 12-footer for the first of back-to-back birdies on the par-four third, before making up-and-down from the edge of the fourth green to move to four-under.
However, the 30-year-old would finish the round on a disappointing note, a wild drive on the seventh forcing him to chip sideways back out onto the fairway, resulting in a bogey.
"I really feel like it was the worst I could have shot out there," McIlroy said after a round that needed 31 putts.
Meanwhile, legendary South African golfer Gary Player says he's never played a better course than Royal Portrush.
The nine-time Major winner, who won the 1997 Senior Open Championship at the Dunluce links, returned to the course yesterday to check it out ahead of next month's Open Championship, which starts on July 18.
"As far as the golf course is concerned, I have never played a better golf course than Royal Portrush. I think the new Turnberry and Portrush are the two finest links you could ever wish to play," praised the 83-year-old.
"I have no hesitation in saying this is the best golf course in Ireland.
"The new holes are magnificent," he added.
"It's a great thing for Ireland to have The Open. A billion people are going to see it, see what a wonderful place it is.
"The way they've got it set up, the course is in wonderful condition, everything is going to be well organised, they're doing a lot of new things.
"I think it's going to be as good an Open as you've ever seen," he added.
Meanwhile, Paul McGinley's organisational skills and the chance to play links golf before The Open have persuaded two-time Major winner Martin Kaymer to commit to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch, which runs from July 4 to 7.