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Graeme McDowell looking seeking Italian title defence

Britain's Graeme McDowell will launch his title defence at the Italian Open on Thursday when the European Tour returns to more familiar surrounds after co-sanctioning two consecutive events in China.

McDowell, who has spent much of this season on the U.S. PGA Tour, won last year's tournament at the Castello di Tolcinasco Golf & Country Club in Milan by beating Frenchman Thomas Levet at the fourth extra hole.

It was the second European Tour victory of his career, the Northern Irishman having clinched the 2002 Scandinavian Open on only his fourth professional start.

"When I won in Sweden, I felt I was still an amateur because I was only two months into my professional career," McDowell said after his Italian Open triumph.

"Now I feel like a pro. I've had two years working and grinding because being a pro is a different world.

"Everything happened too fast when I came on tour and I didn't know how to react to it. This feels five times as good as Sweden."

Twelve months on, the 25-year-old McDowell is a very different player.

He has become more battle-hardened and impressed all those who watched him tie for second with Vijay Singh, behind winner Kenny Perry, at the PGA Tour's Bay Hill Invitational in Florida in March.

"I feel like I'm playing great golf and I'm a much better player than last year," said McDowell after closing with a best-of-the-week 66 at Bay Hill.

"I feel my game is strong and that I can win in any given week."

Exuding confidence, the Ulsterman will certainly be one of the players to watch this week at the 62nd Italian Open.

Among the other big names taking part are 1989 British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia, Argentina's Angel Cabrera and Ricardo Gonzalez, Europe's 2002 Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance and Spaniard's Ignacio Garrido.

The local challenge will be led by former Ryder Cup player Costantino Rocca and the diminutive but big-hitting Emanuele Canonica.

One of the oldest events on the European Tour, the Italian Open was first held in 1925 and has been a permanent fixture on the schedule since 1972.


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