How fatigue made World number eight play 'like a 22-handicapper'
If Graeme McDowell took a yellow-brick road to Pebble Beach last summer, Ulster's world No 8 has been waylaid by gremlins as he looks to Congressional and next week's defence of his US Open title.
Following so soon after his Sunday meltdown at Sawgrass, McDowell's shocking third-round 81 at the Wales Open represents a savage blow to his confidence.
McDowell is as tough as they come and he sounded a brave note of defiance after closing at Celtic Manor with a level-par 71. Yet he took such a beating out of the blue on Saturday, self-doubt inevitably will linger like heavy bruising.
How does a world-beater like McDowell end up eight-over for his first seven holes on Saturday? And, as he said himself, "playing about a 22 handicap or something like that".
Bad luck played its part. No doubt, anything that could go wrong did go wrong for McDowell in what he admitted was "the craziest seven holes I've had in a long time".
Yet after getting himself back into the tournament with spirited birdies at eight and nine, McDowell's resolve shattered when he pulled his second shot at the par-five 11th into water left of the green for a bogey six. "I completely lost my patience at that point," he conceded in a wonderfully frank and honest post-round interview. "That stupid shot kind of broke my heart."
McDowell's head was spinning as he racked up a quadruple-bogey eight at 12, where he took three attempts to chip his ball up a bank onto the green.
"I felt I was in control of my game and I very swiftly got out of control there today," he explained. "It's a little bit of a flavour of my season. I've been very impatient with myself when it goes wrong. For some reason, I don't have that (ability to) dig deep.
"I probably have had more triples and doubles this year than I've had in years. I need to understand why and address it."
Yet there's no mystery here. After running high on adrenalin from June to January, McDowell then took a paltry four-week break from tournament golf and even spent some of that "vacation" working on his game.
That never was going to be enough time to rebuild his mental reserves. So the Portrush man has struggled with his game ever since. Effectively, he's paying for the folly of not taking an extended break last winter.
Other factors exacerbate the situation, not least the added duties, commitments and responsibilities that come with being a Major champion.
McDowell's swing, meanwhile, makes him more prone to error when he's tired. While it's nowhere near as unorthodox as the famous Eamonn Darcy, Jeev Milkha Singh or Jim Furyk, McDowell swings the club like Lee Trevino and relies on "feel" to get the club-face square at impact.
If that feel is lost, it can be difficult for a tired player to get it back, with frustration putting the prospect of perfect co-ordination even further out of his reach. Like the timing of a high-performance engine, the difference between success and a snap hook is measured in micro-seconds and thousandths of an inch. No doubt, McDowell and his coach Pete Cowen will get his swing back in tip-top condition for the US Open -- yet after the unsettling events of recent months, he will wonder if, or when, the gremlins will strike next.
He certainly has the potential to win more Majors and may even reach world No 1, though perhaps not this summer. Last Saturday was a brutal lesson that scheduling and time management can be as critical to the performance of an elite sportsman as equipment or technique.