SOUTHPORT, England -- Graeme McDowell is only 28, but this isn't his first time in the lead at the British Open.
McDowell shot a one-under-par 69 Thursday to match Rocco Mediate and Robert Allenby at Royal Birkdale, two years after a first-round 66 led the Open at Hoylake. And that was 59 years after Fred Daly, from McDowell's golf club in Portrush, won at Hoylake to become the first Irishman to take a major championship.
"Yeah, I certainly felt like a rabbit in the headlights a couple of years ago at Hoylake," said McDowell, who tumbled to a T-61 finish there behind Tiger Woods after following the 66 with rounds of 73-72-79. "I certainly feel like quite a different player than I was two years ago, and I didn't really have a whole lot of belief in my game."
The difference might be McDowell's maturity as a player, evidenced by a victory in last week's Scottish Open and a playoff win in March at the Ballantine's Championship. Those victories and five other top-10 finishes this year have helped McDowell to fourth place on the European Ryder Cup standings entering the Open, trailing only Lee Westwood, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Robert Karlsson.
"I've obviously been showing some form for the last 10 to 12 months," said McDowell, who won the 2002 Fred Haskins Award at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and won on the European Tour in only his fourth start. "I've got more belief in my game and what I'm doing. I'm certainly more comfortable in this position than I would have been two years ago."
At Hoylake, a young man recognized McDowell in a bar and gave him a tip before the first round.
"He said, 'You get it pretty laid off at the top, don't you?' " McDowell recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, I guess I do.' He said, 'Get a bit of work done on that, will you?' I said, 'Fantastic; thanks for that.' "
McDowell's British Open record also includes a T-11 in 2005 at St. Andrews, that run ruined by a quadruple-bogey 8 at the Road Hole in the third round. Earlier that year McDowell finished T-2 at Bay Hill, rebounding from a 2004 car crash. "I was a rear-seat passenger in a car that spun and hit a tree head-on at 45 miles per hour," he said. "I had some whiplash of the spine, and it was four or five weeks before I felt reasonably match-fit. Then I jammed it again."
At Birkdale, McDowell believes he has an edge with his Portrush pedigree.
"There's absolutely no doubt about it," he said. "Links short game is a completely different fish from short game that we're faced with week in, week out, especially for the American players. You can play shots with anything from lob wedge right through to hybrids and 3-woods, and it really does take a lot of experience and, like I say, a lot of imagination. . . . Ten, 15, 20 years' golfing at Portrush, I think stands me in good stead when I come to the British Open."