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McDowell faces stiff defense of coveted French Open title

PARIS -- Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell begins his French Open defense at Le Golf National near Versailles on Thursday as a quality field get another taste of the venue set to host the 2018 Ryder Cup.

The 34-year-old 2010 U.S. Open champion, played almost flawless golf last year on one of the toughest courses on the European circuit, as he blew open a tight final round to eventually canter to a four shot victory over South Africa's Richard Sterne.

The win was the last of McDowell's 12 professional victories.

The competition on the lush Albatross layout promises an enthralling battle with newly crowned U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, American world number five Matt Kucher, Dane Thomas Bjorn and French hope Victor Dubuisson just four amongst a pack of strong contenders.

Germany's Kaymer, the man who sunk the putt to retain the 2012 Ryder Cup, became the first non-British European to win the U.S. Open in June as he outclassed the world's finest by a staggering eight strokes, to win his second major, after the 2010 PGA championship.

However, the 29-year-old from Dusseldorf who won the French Open in 2009, came back down to earth with a bump on his return to the EPGA circuit by missing the cut at last weekend's Cologne Open where Fabrizio Zanotti became the first Paraguayan-born player to win on the European Tour.

Kaymer, who admitted the relatively easy layout in Cologne did not suit his game, will be looking to return to the form which carried him to victory at Pinehurst, with the Open championship, the season's third major, set to begin on July 17 at Hoylake, near Liverpool.

“I am very happy to come back to one of my favorite events on the European Tour. The course is fantastic and so are the fans,” said Kaymer, looking ahead to his eighth straight appearance at the tournament.

“They are always very supportive and loud during the French Open. I cannot even imagine what it will be like in 2018 at the Ryder Cup,”

Kuchar, who struggled to make the cut on his first visit to Paris last year, comes into the tournament ranked four in the world and in line to be part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team that takes on Europe in September at Gleneagles.

The popular American picked up his seventh PGA victory in April when he held off Englishman Luke Donald by one stroke to win the RBC Heritage.

He finished tied for fifth at the Masters and 12th at the U.S. Open but has yet to taste victory on European soil since turning professional in 2000.

Dubuisson is the new leading light in French golf after winning last year's Turkish Open and then reaching the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship this year, where he was finally beaten on the fifth playoff hole by world number six Jason Day.

Guaranteed a place in Paul McGinley's European team, he will be looking to put on a show for the home fans in a field where French hopes will also turn to Alexander Levy, Romain Wattel, Gregory Bourdy and Thomas Levet, the last French player to win the title in 2011.

McGinley will also be in action, as will his Ryder Cup predecessor as captain, Jose Maria Olazabal, Padraig Harrington, Nicolas Colsaerts and Matteo Manassero.

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