THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Though at times talk of a finish line with the pro golf season appears to be an unfounded rumor, some players can vouch for its existence.
For Graeme McDowell, it will come Sunday with the final round of the World Challenge here at Sherwood Country Club after which he gratefully will slip away and out of view for a whopping 10 weeks. Though he had thrown down a crisp, 3-under 69 in Thursday’s first round to get into a share of second, two behind Nick Watney, McDowell’s smile probably could be tied not to his score but to thoughts of his upcoming break.
There will be three days in his native Northern Ireland, but for the most part, your 2010 U.S. Open champion will be anchored – oops, bad word this week, so scratch that; he will be camped out for 10 weeks in his brand-new Lake Nona home in Orlando, preparing for the opening of his restaurant, chilling out, kicking back, exhaling and re-charging the batteries.
California this week, after tournaments in Dubai, two in China, the Ryder Cup in Chicago and FedEx Cup playoffs in Indianapolis and Boston have made for a hectic 12-week stretch. Though McDowell feels privileged to be at the level he’s at, he doesn’t want to lose any of his passion for golf. And right now, he conceded, “about 10 percent of it is gone.”
Given that much of 2012 has been filed under “frustration,” McDowell feels it’s imperative to rejuvenate things. Where as in 2010 and 2011 he putted perhaps as well as anyone on the golf planet, “the putter’s been ice cold” in 2012 and so his finishes have been less favorable than he would like. Oh, being 31st on the PGA Tour money list, ninth on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, and 24th in the world rankings are admirable feats, but when it came time to plan his 2013 schedule, McDowell looked at Abu Dhabi, where he has played five of the past six years, “and I just didn’t want to do it.”
Because he has fallen out of love with golf? No. Quite the opposite. But he subscribes to the philosophy that “too much of a good thing” isn’t always healthy, so by taking an extended break, McDowell is hopeful of showing up at the Northern Trust Open (Feb. 1) with a renewed vigor.
He is not alone in this search for year-end enthusiasm, either. Fellow European Ian Poulter will join McDowell on the sidelines, though not for as lengthy of a stretch. Having also traveled here via Dubai, Shenzhen and Shanghai, the Englishman is limping to the finish line.
“I’m struggling right now. I feel empty at the minute,” he said. “It’s been a long six weeks till now. I’ve got a lot of air miles on me, which is really, really difficult, and I’m trying really hard to get through this week.”
He is off to an admirable start, having birdied the 18th to shoot 1-over 73. The only thing is, with just 18 players in this elite and select field, Poulter is T-11, his score beating only two who shot 74 (Johnson & Johnson, Zach and Dustin, not the pharmaceutical company) and Brandt Snedeker, who played his last seven holes in 5 over to finish at 75.
Poulter, having been the star of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team in September and then winning the HSBC Champions in China, is clearly in superior form. But that doesn’t mean he wants to keep pushing it. He’ll finish this week, play the Shark Shootout next week, then take a few weeks off before teeing it up at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Maui. And then? “I’ll shut it down five or six weeks,” Poulter said.
Mind you, neither man is complaining. They are fast to point out that their busy end-of-year schedules are testimony that pro golf is thriving, especially on the PGA Tour. Where once when the leaves fell it was the “Silly Season,” no one’s laughing at these events now.
“The end of the year has become a joke (it’s so good),” McDowell said. “It’s kind of nuts.”
If there is a sense of fatigue with Keegan Bradley, it’s related to this anchoring business that has been dogging him for months and came to a head Wednesday when the USGA and R&A banned the putting technique. So the decision has been made and Bradley knows that he’ll eventually have to settle on another method, but it’s not like the matter is done and finished.
“I’ve been catching such flak on Twitter and these other places, it would be good to kind of quiet them a little bit,” Bradley said, his round bogey-free before he sprayed a tee shot at the 18th. His ball came to rest on a root and led to a bogey. Still, with 69 he’s just two off the lead.
Take that, critics. Oh, and just for the record, Bradley the day before borrowed Tiger Woods’ conventional putter and jammed home three of four putts from inside of 10 feet. Granted, he’s committed to the belly putter for now and the foreseeable future, but it’s not as if he’s going to let the jokesters and mean-spirited crowd get to him.
“I had a guy yesterday telling me to send my application in to a Burger King for 2016,” Bradley said. “It always feels good to play well, but this feels better. Almost.”
For the tournament host, what feels good is to produce a score of 1 under when you’ve slapped it all over the joint.
“I didn’t hit it very good today,” Woods said. “It was nice to scrape out a good score.”
That can be done when you slam home par-saving putts by the handful, the one that made him smile widest being the 12-footer at the par-3 15th. “Kept myself in the tournament,” said Woods, whose win here a year ago kick-started his solid 2012 campaign.
A day earlier, Woods and Bradley had indeed engaged in some friendly banter on the putting green (“I give him grief every day,” Woods said) and others joined in the back-and-forth. Steve Stricker walked by and tossed a few jokes Bradley’s way, and Snedeker was another of the conventional-putting crowd to add some humor.
Bradley accepts it good-naturedly from his colleagues, but thinks he and Webb Simpson, Adam Scott, and Carl Pettersson – just to name a few of the anchorers – will hear it from fans for a while.
“I kind of think (the USGA and R&A) have put an ‘X’ on our backs, that the light is shining on us,” Bradley said.
Nothing like a little controversy to do that, which is the curious thing about this sports world we have. Very little spotlight was placed on Watney, who methodically went about his duties in brilliant fashion. Playing bogey-free, he hit an 8-iron from 164 yards to 4 feet and completed a back-nine 32 with his fifth birdie in 10 holes to seize the lead.
Perhaps back in mid-August Watney might not have envisioned being in this elite field, his season had been so spotty. But he won the Barclays to start the FedEx Cup playoffs, reeled off another win in Malaysia a few weeks ago, and so here he is. Tired? Well, sure, because that seems to be a common theme with global stars at this time of year, but it’s remarkable how when you require just 67 strokes you somehow seem to have a brighter smile and livelier step.