A tale of two meltdowns
It's tempting to equate Graeme McDowell's implosion at Sawgrass on Sunday with his good pal Rory McIlroy's meltdown at the Masters; in fact, they hardly could be more different.
Okay, in both cases the numbers were shocking.
And if McIlroy's nightmare on Magnolia Lane was as close as golf gets to a horror movie, one has to concede that McDowell's collapse on the Stadium Course would make a chilling sequel.
'Wee-Mac' had four bogeys, a four-putt double, a triple, just one birdie and drove one ball into water (at 13) as he surrendered his four-stroke overnight lead at Augusta with a final-round 80 that left him a distant 16th behind winner Charl Schwartzel.
McDowell led by one going into the last round at The Players on Sunday afternoon and closed with a 79 to finish 33rd, eight strokes outside of a play-off between his two playing companions, KJ Choi and David Toms.
Choi took the $1.7m winner's cheque when Toms three-putted for an anti-climactic bogey at the first play-off hole, missing from inside three feet for par after forcing the tournament into extra-time by holing-out from 17 feet for a brilliant birdie at 18. Crazy game this golf.
G-Mac had six bogeys, a double and just one birdie in his final 18 holes. Including the last hole of his third round that morning, he hit an astonishing five balls into the water at the Stadium Course on Sunday. Wow!
Yet the similarities end right there.
Augusta was unknown territory for McIlroy, who had never felt the pressure of being in contention going into the back nine on Sunday at a Major championship.
In stark contrast, McDowell, at 31 and nearly 10 years older than his gifted fellow Ulsterman, has already proven himself in golf's most testing environment at last June's US Open.
McDowell's faith in his own ability to win in any company is unshakeable. Any doubts others might have had after Pebble Beach would be obliterated by his performance at the Ryder Cup and in the manner he brilliantly hunted down Tiger Woods on Sunday at November's Chevron World Challenge.
McDowell learned nothing he didn't already know about his golf game on Sunday. Indeed, as next month's defence of his US Open title looms, he can draw hope from Sawgrass that the true horrors of the previous six weeks, when he stumbled hopelessly to three missed cuts in four outings, are at an end.
The Portrush man's greatest enemy this season has been fatigue. As one Tour insider said at Augusta, McDowell needed a complete two-month break from golf to recharge his batteries after his heroics in 2010. The five-week sojourn he took before the Accenture Match Play this spring simply wasn't enough.
Required to play 31 holes last Sunday after resuming his storm-interrupted third round on the sixth, it was hardly surprising when McDowell revealed he'd simply run out of steam in that final round.
The turning point came at holes six and seven. After forcing himself back onto level terms with the hard-charging Toms by holing a monster putt for birdie at four, McDowell hit two woeful tee shots -- blocking the first at six into the trees and pulling the second, at seven, into water.
"At that point I just felt the life kind of drain right out of me," he'd confess. Having fallen behind, McDowell felt he'd no option but to go chasing birdies -- and Sawgrass is the last place in the world to do that if your swing is creaking.
He made bogey at nine after pulling a three-wood into the bushes, and another at the treacherous 13th, where he gave his full-blooded nine-iron the faintest tug and his ball bounced on the putting surface and rolled into the water.
As his chase became more desperate, the magic drained out of McDowell's putter. By the time he fed two more balls to the alligators at 17 and 18, he was simply trying "to keep out of the way" of Choi and Toms in their quest for glory.
And that brings us to the greatest difference between McIlroy's demise and McDowell's water torture -- the Stadium Course itself.
Augusta can be as brutal as it is beautiful, but nowhere is more mean and cruel to the bleeding golfer as Sawgrass on a hot, dry and windy Sunday afternoon. He'd get more mercy from the lions in the Roman Colosseum.
Where else but at the 17th at the Stadium Course would a play-off between Choi and Toms, God bless them, hold spellbound a crowd of tens of thousands on its vast grass banks and keep millions of TV viewers on the edge of their seats?
Is Sawgrass fair? Not really, but who cares?
For example, McDowell suffered the cruellest blow on the final hole of his third round at Sunday lunchtime, when a decent approach out of a flyer lie bounced through the right greenside rough, landed nicely on the green and then rolled all the way across to the far side and into the lake.
This ludicrous stroke of misfortune led to a double bogey and left McDowell just one ahead going into the afternoon instead of three. Given the parlous state of his energy reserves at that time, one suspects this was the first of several mortal blows he'd take on Sunday.
McDowell's swing has been compared with that of Lee Trevino. It's got plenty of moving parts but, as he proved at Pebble and Celtic Manor, it works well under pressure.
While fatigue caused his game to crack and crumble in the spring, McDowell and his coach Pete Cowen plainly got it back together during an intensive session last week at Lake Nona if the evidence of the first 59 holes at Sawgrass is to be believed.
As G-Mac and Wee-Mac head for this week's Volvo World Match Play Championship on Spain's Costa del Sol, McDowell remains very much the proven article. The world and probably even the youngster himself still must wonder if McIlroy can fulfil his phenomenal potential.