McDowell ready to move on from U.S. Open win

Graeme McDowell hoists the trophy after winning the U.S. Open.

Graeme McDowell hoists the trophy after winning the U.S. Open.

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1:14:02 PM ET. 04/24/2014




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BETHESDA, Md. — The U.S. Open is one of the season's most stressful weeks for a professional golfer. Not for Graeme McDowell.

He expressed relief that Tuesday’s news conference marked the end of his duties as defending champion. The trophy is back in the U.S. Golf Association’s possession. Now he’s just another player trying to conquer Congressional Country Club.

“I'm really happy that it's all done because I really want to look forward to the rest of my career and what I want to achieve,” McDowell said. “It's tough to look forward when all everyone wants to talk about is the past.”

He’ll fondly remember 2010, the year he won his first major and helped Europe claim the Ryder Cup, but be happy to forget his recent results.

McDowell developed a reputation for coming through in the clutch, but has had two stunning collapses in his past four starts. He held the 54-hole lead at The Players Championship, but shot a final-round 79. He was in contention two weeks ago at the Wales Open until a third-round 81.

“The second that I couldn’t win the golf tournament, subconsciously I lost that drive to dig in,” McDowell said. “I’ve really got to reset my goals and realize that consistent golf is what it’s all about, and you don’t have to win every week to be a top player.”

That statement will offend those who think winning is the only the thing. Those people have been spoiled by Tiger Woods, though. Winning on Tour requires not only a high level of skill but also a good amount of luck.


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That’s the conclusion of What It Takes to Win On The PGA Tour, a paper by Robert A. Connolly, associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, and Richard J. Rendleman Jr., a visiting professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. The paper will be published soon in the journal Interfaces.

Luck isn’t just defined by good lies in the rough or bounces off trees into the fairway. It’s also about the natural random variation that’s inherent in golf. Sometimes a player makes more putts because of an improved stroke, a new putter or flatter greens. But sometimes he holes out more often just because of favorable random variation.

Consider this: a PGA Tour player makes about 50 percent of his 8-foot putts. Making an 8-footer is almost equivalent to flipping a coin. Heads, you make. Tails, you miss. It’s not guaranteed that a coin will land on heads half the time, though. Sometimes it’ll show heads 70 percent of the time. Sometimes 30 percent. That’s random variation in action.

“If you expect to make half (of your 8-foot putts) and you putt 20, sometimes you’re going to make 13 or 14, sometimes you’re going to make seven, and not really be putting any differently,” Rendleman said. “The times when you make 13 or 14 are the times that you’re in the top 10, and maybe even you win. That doesn’t mean you’re a better putter. Sometimes on a random basis you make more than you expect, and sometimes you make less.”

Random variation can apply to all parts of a player’s game. Hitting an iron shot close to the hole requires a high level of skill. But when striking a ball with a club that’s traveling in excess of 100 mph, when even the slightest mishit can have a dramatic impact, there’s a little luck involved.

“Let’s say a good pro can expect to hit a 100-yard wedge shot within 15 feet half of the time," Rendleman said. "Sometimes he will hit it within 15 feet 65 percent of the time, and not really be playing any better, just like there are times when 'black' comes up in roulette 65 percent of the time. Even Luke Donald can’t swing it exactly the way he wants to every time, so that introduces a certain amount of random variation.

"It’s my strong feeling that the guys that win are typically those for whom random variation worked in their favor that week.”

Then there are those pesky other 155 players in the field. Golfers can’t play defense, so their hopes of winning depend largely on other players’ performances. No one in the 2000 U.S. Open was going to catch Tiger Woods. On the other hand, Adam Scott seemed to clinch this year’s Masters with his birdie on the par-3 16th. Jason Day birdied the final two holes to catch him. They could only watch as Charl Schwartzel birdied the final four holes to win, though.

The conclusion? Winning ain’t easy. The man who lifts the trophy on Sunday isn’t just a skilled player. He had a little luck on his side.

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