Back on the course that has provided two key moments in his career, McDowell opened with three straight birdies Friday and finished strong for a 6-under 66, giving him a three-shot lead going into the weekend at the World Challenge.
"A good day's work," said McDowell, whose day was not over until he was escorted away for a drug test.
Bo Van Pelt got up-and-down from the drop zone for bogey on the final hole that gave him a 68, leaving him tied for second with Keegan Bradley and Jim Furyk, who each had a 69. Tournament host and defending champion Tiger Woods was tied for the lead on the back nine until he stalled and settled for a 69. He was four shots behind.
This is the final destination of a whirlwind trip for McDowell, who spent two weeks in China, a short holiday in Dubai, a tournament in Australia, back to Dubai and then across eight time zones to California.
It's also been somewhat of a whirlwind year, filled with opportunity, but no trophies.
He played in the final group in back-to-back majors, the U.S. Open and British Open, without winning. He was on the winning Ryder Cup team again, only he concedes his game wasn't there and he earned only one point.
McDowell always feels relaxed at Sherwood Country Club, with an 18-man field and no cut and the finish line clearly in his sights. Suddenly, though, he has something at stake. The World Challenge doesn't belong to any tour. It offers world ranking points, though he isn't in dire need of them. But there's a trophy, and McDowell hasn't hoisted one of those since that birdie-birdie finish to beat Woods in a playoff at Sherwood in 2010.
"I would love to compete and play well this weekend, really to kind of put a little icing on what's been a mediocre year," McDowell said. "Despite the fact that I feel like I've played some decent golf this year, I really don't have a lot to show for myself, and this would be a nice way to finish."
McDowell was at 9-under 135.
Even though McDowell's win at Sherwood in 2010 capped a dream season — his U.S. Open title, the clinching point at the Ryder Cup — it was a runner-up finish in 2009 that set up all those spoils. He was a last-minute replacement for Woods, who didn't play as his personal life unraveled, and McDowell finished second. It was the first year the tournament received ranking points, and McDowell earned enough to get into the Masters and eventually the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he won.
That U.S. Open title assured him being in the Ryder Cup, where he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole that carried Europe to a big win.
"Sometimes the stars align," he said.
His 66 gave him a cushion going into the weekend, but light rain overnight and for much of the day made the course soft and vulnerable. McDowell said the greens could only be rolled, not cut, making them substantially slower. That attributed to so many good scores, with half of the field in the 60s.
McDowell believes there's a 63 or 64 out there for someone, especially in these conditions, so his three-shot lead doesn't seem like much only halfway through the event.
Woods fired at flag around the turn, picking up easy birdie putts on the ninth and 10th, handling the par 5s without difficulty and getting to the top of the leaderboard. His momentum slowed with a bogey on the par-3 15th, and a poor chip from the rough to the left of the par-5 16th green that led to a par.
"I had a decent warm-up session, but the work I did last night was some of the best I've hit the golf ball all year," Woods said. "I just had to come out here and trust it, and when I did, I got into a nice little run there. I just need to do that all 36 holes on the weekend."
Nick Watney, who had a 67 on Thursday, fell apart late. His sand wedge from the middle of the fairway on the 16th landed over the green and kept right on going, leading to a bogey that felt like losing two shots to the field. He bogeyed the 18th for a 73, putting him five shots out of the lead. He was tied with Rickie Fowler, who had a 67.
"Just a terrible way to finish, but we're only halfway through," Watney said. "So we'll see if we can make a charge at those guys in the morning."
McDowell is mainly charging to the end of the season.
He plans to go home to Northern Ireland for three days, and then head to Orlando, Fla., where he just finished building a new home. McDowell slept in his new house for the first time Monday, flying to California the next day.
What will he do with more than two months off?
"Try and stay out of the bar as much as possible," he said with a laugh. "December will be very much recharging and relaxing and moving into my new house in Orlando and spending some time with friends and family. And January will be detoxing and practicing and getting ready to do it all again."