He outshot both players the first day with a 69. After scoring 70 on both Friday and Saturday, McDowell is tied for ninth at 4 under par entering the final round.
“I think four or five months ago, you know, if you'd have told me you're on the first tee with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson this week at the U.S. Open, where my game was or where my confidence level was, I would have been very intimidated, no doubt about it,” McDowell said.
“I think the last three or four months, with the victory and some good finishes and starting to kind of put myself under the gun a few times and getting the juices flowing again… Confidence is one of these very fragile things, you know. It certainly goes away a lot quicker than it comes back.”
After finishing 144th in the FedEx Cup standings last year, McDowell had two goals entering 2019: regain fully exempt PGA Tour status and qualify for the 2019 Open Championship, which is being played at his home course, Royal Portrush Golf Club, in Northern Ireland.
McDowell’s fourth PGA tour win in the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship solidified his standing. Last Sunday, his 29-foot putt for par on the final hole of the RBC Canadian Open punched McDowell’s ticket into The Open Championship field.
“Those were my two very simple goals, and I achieved both of those now,” McDowell said. “I can start kicking on and looking ahead to get myself back in the top 100, back in the top 50 in the world.
“And I believe I'm playing well enough to do that. And I feel like my confidence is coming back.”
But regaining confidence has been a gradual process for McDowell, who turns 40 next month. Since turning pro in 2002, McDowell has collected 15 wins between the European, PGA and Asian Tours. His win at Puntacana in March ended a four-year drought.
In U.S. Open play, McDowell has missed the cut five times since his Pebble Beach victory in 2010, including last year at Shinnecock Hills. This week, he entered the tournament on a high. He was tied for 11th after the second round at 3 under par. On Saturday, McDowell rallied with a remarkable eagle on 18 to finish with a 70 and move to 4 under.
“Really cool to make 3 there,” McDowell said. “I was telling my caddie, I quite fancy this one, it would be nice to roll this one in. And obviously the fans have been fantastic this week, and it was nice to get a cheer like that on the last green. And cleaned up what was a frustrating day.”
McDowell made two mistakes on Saturday. Despite hitting 11 of 14 fairways, he boogied from the short grass on holes 4 and 11. McDowell cited “a lack of respect for the pin position” on Hole 11.
“I didn't realize how tight it was and hit an awful shot,” McDowell said. “It was funny out there, because the pins seemed easy, the conditions seemed easy, but obviously no one really got away with it. So I'll take it. Obviously somewhat in the mix (on Sunday), but I'll need something pretty special.”
McDowell remains a realist when it comes to the state of his game. Although he’s accomplished his “simple goals” for 2019, McDowell’s final aim is to be contending on the back nine come Sunday.
“I'm not there yet by any stretch of the imagination,” McDowell said. “I've got a long way to go in this game to get me back where I want to be. These three rounds have been important, and the confidence continues to build. That was fun in the last, but I'm not kidding myself. I'm not in this tournament yet. It requires a strong seven holes to open up (Sunday) to try and give myself something to hang onto coming in.
“We all know that the first seven is where you make your score here, and it's a case of hanging on 8, 9 through 14. And 15 through 18 you can kind of do some things. So looking forward to it. Enjoying being out there. Like I say, all those little building blocks continue to pile up. My game is trending in the right direction, but still a lot of work to do.”