Graeme McDowell admits he has let his frustrations get the better of him this season but a return to familiar surroundings paid off at Portstewart on Thursday.
A five-under par 67 left the Portrush native trailing round one leaders, American Daniel Im and Frenchman Benjamin Hebert by three shots at the DDF Irish Open hosted by the Rory Foundation.
“It’s been frustrating for all the right reasons because I’ve been playing well,” said Graeme.
“I’ve been walking away on Sunday nights not feeling like I got enough out of the week but that’s a better frustration than when you just know you’re not playing well.
“The game’s not been far away, and you know, perhaps it’s a week like this week that can give me that little bit of spark and that little bit of inspiration to really kick on for the summer.
“I’m really pleased with that start, and I’m looking forward to getting back it tomorrow.”
Starting at the 10th, Graeme reached three under quickly with birdies at the 13th, 14th and 16th but dropped shots at the 17th and 18th saw him turn in one under 35.
“It would have been easy to get frustrated at that point but I hit a beautiful shot into the second and made a couple of nice putts on that nine and turned a mediocre day into a decent day,” he added.
“I was happy with the way I rolled it on the greens generally and I hit a lot of quality shots.”
The 2010 US Open champion played some fine golf on his back nine, collecting four birdies at the second, fourth, sixth and eighth, to end the day in a share of ninth.
Irish duo, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington are a shot further back after a day of low scoring on the North Coast.
“I definitely feel like it’s the least I deserved out there. I felt like I played great,” said Shane.
“I’m pretty happy with that. Four under in the first round is pretty good. I’m not going to complain.”
Harrington described his round as, ‘a nice, decent score’.
“I played average, had a few chances and if things had gone my way, I certainly could have made it a few more under par but I think four-under is an ok reflection of the day.
“The likelihood is you’ve got to be focusing on 20-under par or more this week, so I need some better scores later on in the week.
“If we get some wind, that will obviously defend the course but at the moment, with beautiful conditions, these guys are good, they are going to shoot low scores.”
A pair of 64’s for Im and Hebert established the course record at Portstewart and gave the unlikely duo - with a combined world ranking of 796 - a one-shot lead over Jon Rahm, Oliver Fisher and Matthew Southgate.
Southgate did not have a practice round after qualifying for the Open Championship for the third time in four years on Tuesday, but the 28-year-old from Southend fired seven birdies as he thrived on memories of his fourth place finish last year.
“It completely changed my life,” said Southgate, who spent the week of the 2015 Open recovering from an operation for testicular cancer.
“I think the biggest thing for me was that I always thought I was good enough to perform like that, and it was more like proving a point to the rest of the world that I could do it.
“That put me in a nice place mentally because I stopped worrying about, ‘Can you do this, what do other people think of you and have you got the game?’.
“It became, ‘Actually Matt Southgate is good enough to compete’, which is a huge monkey to get off your back.”
Fisher recovered from a bogey on the third with seven birdies in his next eight holes and also holed from 30 feet for an eagle on the 13th, but was denied a share of the lead with a bogey on the last.
“I’ve had some ups and downs and it’s certainly a grind at times,” said Fisher, who was the youngest player in Walker Cup history when he represented Great Britain and Ireland as a 16-year-old in 2005.
“I know I have it in me, I have the ability, it’s just the consistency. The top players are more consistent than those lower down the ladder.”
Matt Fitzpatrick, David Drysdale and Jamie Donaldson shared sixth place on six under, with Olympic champion Justin Rose joined McDowell on five under alongside Gavin Moynihan and Paul Dunne.
Donaldson’s 66 remarkably included a five-putt double-bogey on the 13th, his fourth hole of the day.
“I hit two really good shots into the par five but I was still asleep,” explained Donaldson, who won the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in 2012.
“I just casually five-putted, which was kind of bizarre. I just wasn’t really paying much attention and thought I was going to be there all day.
“The last three events I’ve played pretty good with a top 10, top 15 and 32nd. Just had a lot of injuries over the past 12 months and now they have cleared up.”