PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. –- This week at The Players Championship, Graeme McDowell, champion of the RBC Heritage, is one of four recent winners trying to recapture the magic in his first start since tasting victory. So is Masters champion Adam Scott, Zurich Classic winner Billy Horschel and last week’s Wells Fargo Championship Derek Ernst.
In golf, as in life, the future drowns out the present, and so we quickly move on to that age-old question: Is victory a launching pad to new heights or the top of the mountain? McDowell, for one, says he’s experienced both sensations.
“I think sometimes wins are springboards for something greater and beyond, and sometimes they feel like the finish line,” he said. “When I won the U.S. Open in 2010 there was certainly a checkered flag feel about that…When I won in 2008 chasing my first Ryder Cup team, it felt like a springboard to a big season. And hopefully this one – this one certainly feels the same way.”
McDowell’s playoff triumph over Webb Simpson in April was the culmination of nearly two years of hard work. McDowell pointed to a missed cut at the 2011 PGA Championship and a conversation he had with his caddie, Ken Comboy, and his team, as a turning point. Fame is a force, and McDowell had been overwhelmed by his admission to a new world following his first major.
“I realized something had to change,” he said. “I’ve been working hard ever since to get over my U.S. Open hangover and everything that goes with my new status in the game. It was a year of understanding who I was in the game and where I was going as a major champion and dealing with expectations and the new pressures that I was creating – more for myself than anybody else.”
If 2011 was a transition year for McDowell, his 2012 season was a year of frustrating close calls. McDowell had a chance to win his second major at both the U.S. and British Opens. At the end of the year, he took stock of his game and considered drastic changes.
McDowell, who will never make the tour’s bomb squad, chased an extra 15-20 yards off the tee. He expressed his distaste with his driving performance at the 2012 Ryder Cup and it continued to nag at him until the off-season.
“I considered long shafts and swinging out of my shoes at it and getting stronger and fitter and all these crazy things,” McDowell said.
In the final analysis, common sense prevailed.
“I realized I was probably going to take away from my strengths: my iron play, my wedge game, my putting and all the good things that I do,” he said. “It was a crash course that I quickly decided against and it was the right decision.”
In fact, McDowell has actually become shorter this year. He averaged 285.5 yards, which ranked 139th in 2012. Compare that to this season and he’s bunting it out there 277.4 yards, an average of eight yards less and shorter than 150 Tour pros. It didn’t matter at Harbour Town, where precision is at a premium. McDowell averaged 274.5 yards off the tee.
“I’m accepting my game a little more,” he said.
A spotty short game last season, on the other hand, was unacceptable.
“I could have won the U.S. Open if my bunker play had been cleaned up a little bit,” he said. “I worked hard on that area of my game, and the rest has fallen into place.”
Will the artistry McDowell displayed at Harbour Town carry over to the TPC Stadium Course, another famed Pete Dye design? McDowell wouldn’t be too surprised.
“This is always a golf course where I feel like I can get it around,” he said.
If so, it could be a springboard to his greatest season yet.