Graeme McDowell: Hoping Manor can kickstart his season again
Irishman's victory in the Wales Open last year led to a wonderful spell of success – so it's no wonder he's happy to be back in the Gwent hills. He speaks to James Corrigan
Wednesday 01 June 2011
As any hacker will testify, sometimes in golf it is wiser to go back to where you started before attempting to go forward again. Interestingly enough, that adage applies to the finest professionals as well. As Graeme McDowell confirmed on his returned to Celtic Manor this week.
Mention the Ulsterman and the resort in the Gwent hills gazing down on humble old Newport and the mind inevitably springs back to that "People's Monday" last October when the Ulsterman earnt the winning point for Europe in a spectacular scene flooded in drama and emotion.
Indeed, the hero himself was struck by a torrent of recollection when his courtesy car nosed into the Usk Valley. "It was raining so it was instantly familiar," he said with a smirk, recalling the deluge which made it the first four-day Ryder Cup. "It was great coming back, all those photos on the walls evoking lovely memories and then going out there and reminiscing about a few of the shots I hit. And I must admit, just for the craic, I did stage a recreation of that famous putt against Hunter [Mahan] on the 16th. I made it, as well. So I think I've still got it here."
Whatever happens to McDowell, that putt and that point have cemented his legend in the ever-creaking annals of the biennial dust-up. Except Celtic Manor also holds a special place in McDowell's heart for a week in 2010 other than the Ryder Cup. The Wales Open is not everybody's idea of a big date on the calendar, but in McDowell's household it will always be ringed in red ink.
"This event was huge in the grand scheme of things to what happened to me last season," he said. "When I think back to this time last year I had achieved nothing and what was waiting around the corner for me in the next six months was something I could never have imagined."
Without the Wales Open, McDowell would not have been in the anchor role in Colin Montgomerie's singles line-up. He would not have travelled over to the US Open at Pebble Beach the next week with his self-belief levels anywhere near as high. The last-point heroics, the victory over Tiger Woods at his own tournament, the ascent up the rankings to No 4... all of this would have remained in fantasyland. Consider that this time 12 months ago he was 49th in the rankings and the significance of this milestone becomes apparent. "My victory here was just huge for my confidence," he said. "It was a turning point."
It is fair to say his career was in need of that strong yank on the steering wheel. McDowell hadn't triumphed since his supposed breakthrough at the 2008 Scottish Open and the season had begun much like the 2009 had finished – the occasional top 10 flanked by a myriad of mediocre placings. But then, as the Wales Open loomed he caught a break when scraping inside the world's top 50 to qualify for the US Open. "The pressure had been lifted and I went into this tournament feeling ready to do something," he said. "The 36 holes I played on the weekend was the best I've ever played in my life. I shot 64, 63, holding off Rhys Davies, the home favourite, who shot a 62. I struck the ball unbelievable, better than I did at Pebble. I remember saying in my post-tournament interview, 'I feel I'm playing well enough to have a very big summer'. Well, I walked away from here and two Sundays later there I was lifting the US Open trophy."
Little wonder that McDowell feels such affection for the Twenty Ten Course. He is praying the green green grass of his adopted home works it's magic on him again. "This is just the perfect place to come back to and tune myself back into the way I felt last season," he said. "I'm probably having a better season so far this year than last year, so, win or lose, hopefully I can use this week as the same sort of catalyst as I did in 2010."
This is no glib statement. Once again McDowell's campaign is in need of a kick up the waterproofs. He missed the cut at last week's BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, just as he did at The Masters, and has fared no better than the third place in Abu Dhabi which was his maiden outing of 2011. However, he did hold the 54-hole lead at The Players (before collapsing to a final round 79) and beat Rory McIlroy on his way to the quarter-finals of the Volvo Match Play two weeks ago. So the mood is not as low as it was.
"I've actually been very happy with the way I've struck the ball in the last three weeks," said McDowell. "Wentworth was very similar to the way I played at Augusta. I was third in tee-to-green stats at the Masters and it was the same last week. I'll spend three days next week with my coach, Pete Cowen, and will have the technical sorted by Congressional."
The mental aspect of being the reigning champion should also be honed. Wales should help in that regard. "I'm sure there's going to be a bit of a sub-conscious mental barrier to cross over here and the US Open," said McDowell. "Here at Celtic Manor is going to be a great prelude for me as I'm going to get a bit of practice in defending a title, though I understand the US Open is going to be a different kettle of fish. The spotlight will be on me, no doubt. That's something you have to deal, and something I have dealt with in the last year. Being under the microscope is no excuse for not playing your best."
McDowell was reminded as much when partnering Luke Donald last week. The Englishman was heavily hyped to earn the victory that would install him above Lee Westwood as the world No 1 and he kickstarted his march to the summit with a 64.
"Watching Luke play perfect golf showed me I've got a lot to keep working on if I want to be one of the best," he said. "But it gives me a lot of confidence seeing a guy like Luke having his game as polished as it is right now. When you play with guys like Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson or Rory, they do things with a ball I'm not sure I could ever do. I'm never going to be able to fly it 350 yards. But Luke has my type of game, not based on power but control allied to a great short-game. I know I can get that good. It is Luke's level of consistency that has blown me away at the minute. I mean, how does he do it, every week, with the hellish schedule he's just played? It's incredible. We're probably all lucky here that he's not playing against us this week."
Instead, Donald is at The Memorial in Ohio, closer to home and playing a course more similar to the US Open test. But could there be another reason Donald has avoided Wales? Because as everybody by now knows: this is McDowell's Manor.
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