With the putts rolling in and his name briefly atop the leaderboard, it was like the good old days for Graeme McDowell at the Scottish Open on Thursday.

It's been a while since he could say that.

The former U.S. Open champion has had problems balancing life as a father and a professional golfer since the birth of his first child — daughter Vale — last August. He arrived in Gullane this week ranked No. 52, his lowest since October 2009, and with just one top-10 finish this year.

Wrestling with changes to his technique and at times questioning his motivation for golf, McDowell acknowledges it's been a "tough grind" in 2015.

So a 4-under 66 in the first round that put him three shots off the early lead may just be the breakthrough he has been craving. And it could have been even better — he three-putted for bogey on his last two holes.

"Getting nervous with a couple of holes to go because I've got a good round going. I've missed that," said McDowell, who was 5 under after eight holes after four straight birdies on Nos. 5-8. "That's what I enjoy, being on the leaderboard and having some fun. It's about trying to turn this train round and back the right way."

To do that, McDowell and his coach have decided to look at videos of his swing from the best year of his golfing life: 2010. In a six-month period that year, the Northern Irishman won four tournaments — starting with the U.S. Open for his first major title — and also holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup for the European team at Celtic Manor.

McDowell has been working on narrowing his stance, controlling the club face, being less "handsy." On Thursday's evidence, it's worked. Only once since February has he scored a lower round.

"I've got a bit lost," McDowell said. "In an attempt to make things better, I've regressed. It's been hard — this old body ain't what it used to be.

"Life has got in the way, and that's a great problem. I wouldn't change that for the world. It's been a rough year but we all get them from time to time. You have to knuckle down and get on with it. I'm trying to get back to basics a bit."

McDowell said his current ranking isn't bothering him at the moment. But it will start to if he stays in a rut. Dropping out of the world's top 50 will affect his qualifying status for events like the Masters, the British Open and World Golf Championships, and also threatens his spot in next year's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as one of the top two players for Ireland, the country he has decided to represent.

McDowell will be hoping he's come through the worst of it, and that his career gets back to its former level. He has said one of his motivations is seeing Vale run onto the 18th green on a Sunday after he has won a tournament.

Could it happen at the Scottish Open, which he won in 2008?

"I haven't felt in a good place very often this year and it's fun to be hitting good shots and making putts," McDowell said. "I have to take the positive and the momentum."