Graeme McDowell: Learning to live with the hitches
Northern Irishman will soon be married and along with the other changes in his life he is getting used to the fact that form is temporary. Kevin Garside meets Graeme McDowell
The wisdom of Ronnie O'Sullivan and the fortitude of a 17-year-old with cerebral palsy are the twin swing thoughts that Graeme McDowell takes to Muirfield. McDowell has been scratching his head at oscillating form that electrifies one week and electrocutes the next. Rarely do three wins sit alongside six missed cuts halfway through a season, so last week's victory in France is not necessarily the boon it might be leading into The Open Championship.
The East Lothian links completes the set of Open venues for McDowell, who paid his first visit last week to map the course and ensure the brain is wired the right way around. Last year was his most consistent at major championships. Yes, he won the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, but few saw that coming. After a 12th place at the Masters in 2012 he had a putt to force a play-off in the US Open at Olympic Club and was with Adam Scott in the final group in The Open at Royal Lytham.
Having surveyed the terrain at Muirfield and absorbed the lessons of history, McDowell believes the course will suit him. Then again, he thought that of Merion too but left this year's US Open early, just as he had at Augusta, where he missed the cut by a stroke.
A week later he won the Heritage in Hilton Head, his first victory in the US as a full member of the PGA Tour and one he saw as a coming of age. "Hilton Head was probably the best I have felt winning a tournament – I felt under control, calm inside. I gained a huge amount of belief from beating a top player [Webb Simpson] on a tough golf course on a rough day. Things ground to a bit of a halt after that but it came around again at the French, and I go to The Open feeling fresh."
And he feels centred by his association with Kyler, a teenage victim of cerebral palsy whom he first met at the USPGA in Kiawah Island last year, and who watched every ball hit in the Carolinas. "Every time I got frustrated, pissed off or angry, I just looked at him and thought: 'You know what, I'm so lucky. If he can be happy why can't I?' I used him as my inspiration that week, to realign my attitude. I love the picture of him and me on the green after I won."
McDowell ties the knot in October and has been thinking about a lot of things as the nuptials near, reassessing his game in light of the variable results and weighing the demands of professional sport against the need for balance in his life. Enter The Rocket with a penetrating insight into the way the potting of balls and genius plays out at the Crucible.
"We spoke at length," says McDowell. "Ronnie was talking about the two different players who turn up at tournaments. The guy who is ultra-professional, spends eight hours a day on the table trying to prepare himself, comes in with huge expectation and then underdelivers.
"Against that this other guy goes to the arena, warms up and goes straight on stage. You can get too obsessed by the snooker. When he is more relaxed he gets the best out of himself. I kind of agree with him.
"At Augusta this year I was trying to be too perfect, wanting it too badly, and ending up overprepared. The next week at Hilton Head I had family and friends with me. I went to the course, warmed up and got straight on with it. I don't think I hit a ball after my round that week. I let it flow and enjoyed my week. There is a lesson in that.
"Last year was my best in terms of consistency across the season: 12th at Augusta; US Open, should've, could've, would've. It was an amazing experience and I gained a lot of belief from that. And to be in the last group at The Open was special.
"This year I probably over-prepared, spent too much time on the golf course at Augusta and wasn't really ready for the demands of Thursday and Friday, played the last few holes badly each day and missed out by a shot. We are often guilty in sport of working too hard, trying to be overprofessional if you like.
"We forget in golf the importance of being instinctive. The brain can often get in the way of instinct. You become too technical, too mechanical, seeking perfection that isn't there to be had. That makes it difficult to accept bad shots. That is the final piece in the jigsaw for me, learning to accept that some days you are going to shoot a 75 even though you are working as hard as you did shooting 65. Sometimes you just have to let it go.
"I have learned so much from the tough times in my career. You don't learn much shooting 63. Those are just the days when you get a glimpse of how this game could be if it was controllable. But it isn't. Coming off the best season in major golf last year I tried to apply the same processes this year and it hasn't quite worked. What I have learned is that there is no definitive recipe, no perfect formula. It is more important to be accepting of the bad stuff, of keeping things in perspective."
Muirfield threatens a stiff test of McDowell's evolving philosophy. The recent dry, hot weather won't have slowed fairways or greens, giving even greater prominence to the variables inherent in the links ordeal. All of which, theoretically at least, fits the McDowell template.
"Muirfield completes my set of Open courses. Fast and furious suits me well. A bit of control off the tee is required. It's not super-long, just enough rough, well bunkered, not like St Andrews, where the bombers can blow trouble out of the way. At Lytham there was always something in play. Hopefully Muirfield will set up for me and my preparation is looking a little better than it was, so I'll be ready to go."
McDowell has schemed a month off after the FedEx in September. When he returns to complete the European Tour's Race to Dubai finale he will have a wife at his side. "I'm growing up, maturing very quickly. We are keen to have kids very quickly. My life is settling down in the background. I'm still very busy with lots of fun things to do off the golf course; opening the restaurant, moving into the new house, planning weddings, etc. All these things help keep the mind off the golf."
Graeme McDowell is a Srixon staff player
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