For his 2013-14 schedule, Graeme McDowell played the fourth tournament available, the WGC-HSBC Champions in China. For his second tournament, he waited three months for event No. 12 on the calendar, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
True, he was leaving opportunities on the table and giving the field a bit of a head start in all these points races (FedEx Cup, money, Ryder Cup), but McDowell was committed to a bigger picture.
Consider it mission accomplished.
“I’m in a good place, mentally and physically. I’ve paced myself well this year and thankfully it’s paying off.”
Hard to argue against McDowell on this front. After finishing T-24 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic and T-28 at the U.S. Open, McDowell has gone T-6 (Irish Open), first (French Open), T-9 (Open Championship), T-9 (RBC Canadian Open) and T-8 (Bridgestone). The rush has pushed McDowell to fourth on the Ryder Cup’s World Points List. If the deadline were today, he would be an automatic pick.
That’s massive, in his eyes.
Hole No. 1, Par 4, 446 yards: A relatively gentle opener, this steady dogleg left provides a chance for bold players to cut the corner over trees on the left with a high draw or a shot carrying 280 yards played into the prevailing light breeze. The wind here is not, however, a major factor, averaging 7 mph out of the northwest in mid-August and barely enough to offset even partially the traditionally steamy heat. The approach shot here, ideally played left to right, is characteristic of Valhalla in that you can’t work the ball onto the putting surface from a flight path that is outside of the fill pad. In other words, you can’t use the side slopes to get enough bounce to hold the surface. The approach has to be played on a tight line from within the outer edge of the green’s periphery. It’s a course designed strictly for aerial golf.
Hole No. 2, Par 4, 500 yards: For championship play, this members’ par 5 is set up as a gut-wrenching par 4. The drive plays to a Barbie-doll waist of a fairway pinched to 22 yards across, with sand right and a steep falloff to the creek on the left. It’s 280 yards to the bunker, 305 yards to clear, and with the watery slope looming left it won’t be unusual to see players lay up short off the tee here and leave themselves a second shot from 230 yards out. The green, well defended up front and canted diagonally, offers less depth in the target zone than most par 4s at Valhalla. It’s a hole that players, even of this caliber, will approach very defensively.
Hole No. 3, Par 3, 205 yards: It’s impressive how basic and solid Nicklaus can design holes when he’s not trying to trick folks up with gimmicky green “quadrants.” There’s an elegant flow to this hole, especially as viewed from the slightly elevated platform tee across the creek at the base of the wooded hill. A very deep bunker flanks the entire right side and tends to draw golfers away to the left – where the green tilts ever so slightly away from the line of play. The point here is that players have to commit to a middle iron that starts off closer to the right edge than their instincts would prefer.
Hole No. 4, 372 yards: Now we’re out on the vastly open, naturally level flood plain, where Nicklaus and Co. had to work really hard to create all of the contour. The fourth hole is strictly lay-up off the tee, as there’s no incentive or potential reward for a bold drive. The fairway is interrupted 310 yards out, where it spills out into rough, heavily broken ground. Even the far corner of the fairway landing area is heavily protected by bunkers. So it’s a long iron off the tee or some sort of fairway metal/rescue for the guys. The play is to a distinctly contoured green with a plateau right and quick punchbowl fall-off to the left. This is a definite birdie opportunity.
Hole No. 5, Par 4, 463 yards: Now it’s hold-on-for-dear-life-time again, thanks to a relentless dogleg right with very steep bunkers flanking both sides of a tight driving lane. From there, It’s a short- or middle-iron to a putting surface that slides right but kicks the ball back out left if it comes in just a little too far on that high side. If there’s any wind, it works against cutting the hole short off the tee. The one obvious no-no here is coming up short and right on the drive.
Hole No. 6: Par 4, 495 yards: This is the most awkward hole on the course – virtually a compendium of how not to design a par 4. Let’s see: reverse-camber dogleg right to a fairway tilting to the left; a forced layup off the tee since the fairway ends at 300 yards and tumbles off into a steep, watery ravine; trees on the right side that block out a view of the second fairway on the far side. The hole is a nightmare for average golfers – for whom the angle of the tee shot gets progressively worse as the hole gets shorter. Even for these guys in the PGA Championship it’s a knee-knocker of a hole because they’re all facing an approach in of 210-240 yards. Players who miss the fairway on the right off the tee will have no option but to pitch out short of the ravine, leaving themselves two bills in. There’s some relief and bailout short and right of the green, but hit it left and the ball will disappear down a steep embankment.
Hole No. 7: Par 5, 597 yards: The hardest thing in modern course design is to build a par 5 with a viable second fairway option. Here’s an example: a massive par 5, played from a deep launch pad, with two options staring you in the face. There’s a long emerald road down the right side – a seemingly rational path studded with sand on the left side of the tee-shot landing area and on the right side protecting the second-shot zone. And then there’s this little island of repose, virtually dead flat, rimmed only by rough, 1 acre in size and offering a considerably shorter helicopter pad of a fairway for someone who drives the ball 300 yards and straight. To say this island of a second fairway leaves you somewhat isolated is no exaggeration, especially if you miss it. But it is tempting, especially for a player who can then fly his second shot 250 yards over the odd combination of marsh and exposed rock that protects the flyway into this putting surface. The right side is certainly more mundane, but it does pinch down options such that a third shot in following a layup is very awkward because it poses threats both short (sand) and the length of the left side (water). Let’s just say this will be an exciting hole to watch, given the rather startling range of options and the likely gamut of scores, from 3 through 8.
Hole No. 8, 174 yards: Thank goodness for this prosaic interlude, a straightforward little hole played from platform to platform, with lots of shape and contour to the putting surface. The well-sectioned green demands precision on a hole where the trajectory of the short iron will be influenced (somewhat) by the prevailing downbreeze from the left.
Hole No. 10, Par 5, 590 yards: If you ever want to find out how good these guys are, just set up shop to the left of the 10th green and watch them stop shots on a fall-away putting surface. The hole plays shorter than its scorecard yardage, thanks to firm ground and a light breeze helping over the left shoulder. Players who avoid a huge bunker on the right side off the tee (307 yards to reach, 337 yards to pass) can challenge the twisting, double-dogleg ground (right to-left; then left to right) of this second shot. The trick is a green set down below, protected up front by a very steep bunker, shallow in the approach line and tilting back and to the right. There’s a small lane left for a run-up shot. The odds are tougher for a bold second shot flying to the green and holding it. Somehow, a few will manage.
Hole No. 11, Par 3, 210 yards: This hole looks like it was scooped out and settled here – not entirely naturally, so that its modern look feels a bit manufactured. Whatever. These guys won’t care and TV won’t notice. A middle-iron shot heads to a green set diagonally from front right to back left, suspended over a very deep bunker left. The more demanding recovery is actually from behind, where a small bunker leaves a very tough downhill shot from up top.
Hole No. 12, Par 4, 467 yards: I’m all for hole names, but not when they’re lifted from Charlton Heston films. You figure at a club called Valhalla there’d be a hole named “Odin’s Revenge.” Enough said. It’s actually a beautiful par 4, very tough all the way thanks to a narrow driving zone carved left-to-right through a tree-lined chute and leaving a long second shot uphill over a cleaned-out ravine. There’s great spectator viewing from behind this hole. Most players will lay up off the tee rather than risk running through the fairway (310 yards to the edge, downhill) or missing it altogether.
Hole No. 13, Par 4, 350 yards: Here’s more proof, as if it were needed, of my axiom that at any course, the much-vaunted “signature hole” is the least characteristic on the grounds. This memorable short hole is an inventive twist on the now-cliched island green. The bunkerless putting surface here is actually a rock-walled island in a moat, approachable only via an aerial shot after a lay-up tee shot. The hole unfolds from the foot of the clubhouse – dramatic enough – but commits the unpardonable sin of blocking a view of the green from the tee because someone left a dopey stand of trees on the inside left of the dogleg. Why not just clear things out and let golfers gawk – as they do anyway – of the seemingly elusive target? At least one day of the PGA they’ll move the tees up and see if someone is reckless enough to go for it on their drive (attention, John Daly and Bubba Watson). There’s just not enough support in the contour of this 4,000-square foot putting surface to hold a tee shot that’s not perfectly parachuted in – in which case, even from the moved-up tees the smart players will hit middle iron/wedge and play the hole to an average score of about 3.6.
Hole No. 14, Par 3, 217 yards: Good, solid, simple hole to a well-bunkered green canted diagonally. There are three distinct tiers here, each one progressively more difficult to access, with the back one (top right) protected not only by sand but by trees.
Hole No. 15, Par 4, 435 yards: Valhalla has a fine collection of par 4s, and this one starts a great three-hole stretch of them. The drive through a tree-lined chute is one of the tightest at the club and requires a careful right-to-left swing to avoid sand right (294 yards to reach, 313 to carry) and dense woods the entire left side. From there, the short-iron approach is to a green that’s been nudged down towards a rocky creek bed, with the right side of the putting surface hanging over the water. The tendency is to tug the approach shot left, but that brings into a play a bunker pitched back toward the green and a slope that carries the ball toward the water.
Hole No. 16, Par 4, 508 yards: This starts the run of playoff holes from the 2000 PGA when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their epic showdown. It was here at the 16th green that Tiger did his finger-pointing moon walk of a 20-foot birdie putt – an image that will be oft-repeated this week, and rightly so. This shapely dogleg right plays very narrow thanks to trees looming right and a left-to-right sloping fairway. The green, rebuilt since Woods’ famous birdie putt, is perched and runs off in all directions a la Pinehurst.
Hole No. 17, Par 4, 472 yards: Few holes at Valhalla offer a starker example of the advantages enjoyed by sheer power off the tee. The hole runs steadily uphill and calls for a clear option off the tee: a modest drive to the right, leaving a semi-blind approach of 185 yards, or a dramatic carry of the upswept bunker on the left, 320 yards away, leaving a straightforward, readily visible short-iron shot.
Hole No. 18, Par 5, 542 yards: A great closing hole for a championship (and for member play, for that matter). The green here forms center stage on a vast amphitheater that’s ideal for spectators and players because they can see every inch of the way from tee to green, including the split fairway options on the second shot. A horseshoe green wraps around a deep central bunker and creates two distinct putting areas bridged at the top. The drive is relatively generous yet the fairway is heavily defended wide left (grass, sand and gnarly trouble) and wide right (rocky lagoons the length of the hole). This is one of those ingenious, multi-option holes that makes lots of sense in the field and provides the drama and emotional rush that majors are all about.
“I’d like to play my way on with my own merit, as opposed to waiting on a pick,” McDowell said. “To play my fourth Ryder Cup would be a great honor. I’ve paced myself well this season. I’m coming into good form this summer.”
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McDowell is especially pleased that he stayed patient, that he remained committed, even when the results were less than satisfying earlier in the year. Never did he panic nor rearrange his schedule.
“The game is slowly improved over the last couple of months,” he said. “I’m at that point now where I’m starting to believe I can hit the shots that I need every week if I pull it all together.”
For proof, consider how McDowell performed at the Bridgestone Invitational last week. In six previous trips to Firestone Country Club, the Northern Irishman had never finished better than T-22 and had shot in the 60s just three times in 24 rounds. This year he went 66-66 on the weekend for his third top-10 finish in as many weeks.
So, yes, he’s in great form at a most opportune time, the eve of the season’s final major championship. It’s a tournament that has treated him fairly well (McDowell has finished inside the top 15 four out of the last six times) and the venue, Valhalla Golf Club, brings back fond memories.
Though collegiate golf fans will remember McDowell as a stalwart for Alabama-Birmingham, in many ways he was introduced to the American public as a member of the European Ryder Cup team in 2008. McDowell sat out the first session that year, then went 2-1-1 thereafter, capped by a singles win over Stewart Cink.
The Europeans lost, of course, but McDowell in some ways considers that Ryder Cup debut as a more special memory than his winning putt in 2010 or the dramatic comeback in 2012. He is now, however, dragging out his old yardage book and planning to play Valhalla as he did in ’08.
“I really don’t have a lot of knowledge of how the course is going to play,” he said. “Certainly, it’s going to be a different setup from (2008). It’s not the longest course in the world, which makes me happy, for sure. These slugfest major championships, they sort of get old. It’ll be nice to play what sounds like a positional golf course.”
As for the way in which he has come on this year and roared inside the cutoff for European Ryder Cup points, McDowell is very satisfied. That his FedEx Cup standing (41st) and world ranking (15th) are solid are bonuses.
“I think I’m a guy who reacts well to measurable goals. I sort of looked at the world rankings two, three months ago and figured I had to post 75-100 points to guarantee my Ryder Cup spot. That’s the measurable stuff I’m talking about. I’ve ticked away nicely at it since the U.S. Open.”
Now 35 and married, McDowell is 13 years into his pro career and knows how things work best for him.
“I’ve always been like that when I get a little foggy with my goal-settin,” he said. “But when things are measurable and very defined, I’m a bit better. Maybe having that Ryder Cup task hanging over my head has focused my mind better. I knuckled down. I stuck to my guns.”