Graeme McDowell was cautiously optimistic after showing signs of a welcome return to form with an opening 66 in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron on Thursday.
McDowell has managed just one top-10 finish on either side of the Atlantic all season, a share of ninth place in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on February 1.
So the former US Open champion was not about to get too carried away despite carding five birdies and one bogey to set the clubhouse target on four under par at Firestone Country Club.
“When you are playing against some of the best fields in the world and you can post two or three rounds in the 60s and feel you are back competing at the top level, the confidence should come back to me quickly,” McDowell, who started the Scottish Open with consecutive 66s last month but faded to 31st, told Sky Sports 4.
“One 66 is not going to do it, I’m going to need a few. I know what to do when I do get on the leaderboards and it’s just a case of continuing to do what I am doing. I am just excited to post a good early round and get out tomorrow and get back at it.”
McDowell surged into the lead with birdies on the second, third, sixth and seventh in a front nine of 31, before picking up another shot on the 10th.
However, after dropping his first shot of the day on the 12th, the 36-year-old had to scramble for par on the next five holes before narrowly missing from 20 feet for birdie on the 18th.
New Zealand’s Danny Lee and Jim Furyk were five under with two and three holes to play respectively, with Players Championship winner Rickie Fowler in the clubhouse on three under.
English duo Paul Casey and Lee Westwood were a shot behind alongside France’s Victor Dubuisson, with Casey pleasantly surprised with his 68 after coming into the event on the back of a two-week holiday.
“I had no clue what was going on,” Casey joked. “It was a genuine two weeks off and I had not touched a club so it was panic mode the last couple of days trying to get some practice in.”
Casey has climbed back to 26th in the world rankings thanks to an excellent season on the PGA Tour, which has seen him lose out in two play-offs and record four other top-10 finishes.
“Although I have had opportunities to win, I don’t feel disappointed with the way that I have played,” the 38-year-old added on Sky Sports 4. “Even though I didn’t play the play-off like I wanted at the Travelers Championship, the final round was stellar and one of the best I have played in a long time.
“I feel like I am trending in the right direction and have still got time to get a win before the season is out. I am not looking back on the missed opportunities, I am very much focusing forward.”
Sergio Garcia, who lost a three-shot lead in the final round to Rory McIlroy 12 months ago, carded an opening 71 after battling back superbly from a quadruple-bogey on his seventh hole of the day.
Garcia equalled the course record with a stunning second round of 61 last year, making birdies on his last seven holes to complete the back nine in just 27 shots.
However, the Ryder Cup star needed nine shots just to complete one hole on Thursday, finding water with his approach to the 667-yard 16th, missing the green with his fifth shot and eventually three-putting.
To his credit Garcia bounced straight back with a birdie on the 17th and got back to level par with further gains on the second, fourth and sixth, before dropping a shot on the eighth.