ORLANDO, Fla. – Even with a seven-figure purse and a wearable trophy up for grabs, Graeme McDowell has a hard time keeping his mind from drifting to another prize on the line this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
This is the first year that Bay Hill serves as a leg in the Open Qualifying Series, with three players not otherwise exempt among the top 10 punching their tickets to The Open this summer at Royal Portrush. It’s a tasty incentive for many in the 123-man field, but perhaps none more so than McDowell, who was born in Portrush and has played the Dunluce Links course more than 500 times.
McDowell is not currently exempt for The Open, having missed it each of the last two years after a run of 13 straight appearances from 2004-16. But he took a step toward remedying that situation with a 4-under 68 that put him firmly in the mix at Bay Hill, three shots behind leader Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
“Of course the big goal this year is to be at Portrush and to play The Open Championship in my hometown, six weeks after Pebble and the U.S. Open. It’s going to be a special summer if I can get myself there,” McDowell said. “And the game’s there right now, 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 too much.”
Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Inviational
Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos
McDowell is now 39 years old, eight years removed from his peak at No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He is currently ranked No. 259 in the world, playing this week on a sponsor exemption with only conditional PGA Tour status to his credit this season.
But the Ulsterman finished T-11 at the RSM Classic in the fall, and he tied for 18th in his return to Pebble Beach last month, the site of his 2010 U.S. Open triumph. McDowell’s Tour exemption for his 2015 win at Mayakoba ran out in August, and after failing to stay inside the top 125 in points, he’s hoping to take a different approach this week with a tantalizing prize hanging in the balance.
“I haven’t done a good job the last couple years of just trying to get certain things out of my head,” McDowell said. “I haven’t done a good job when I put pressure on myself. So I’m just trying to do the opposite right now. I’m just trying to take a little pressure off myself, and just realize that I love this game, I love being out there and I love doing what I do.”