McDowell a step ahead as McIlroy struggles on
SO who would you rather be right now – Rory McIlroy or Graeme McDowell? Twelve months ago, nobody would even have bothered asking that question as McIlroy stood on top of the world, his confidence soaring from his second Major success in two seasons and about to sign a $20m per annum dream deal with Nike.
With Danish tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki on his arm, the young Holywood star appeared to be at the heart of a modern sporting Camelot.
How quickly and completely that illusion was dispelled.
On Sunday, McIlroy gave some inkling of the seismic shift in his form and fortunes this season when he admitted in Shanghai that, after months of intense remedial work on his game, "there's still a good bit of work to be done ... but it's heading in the right direction."
Off the course, the 24-year-old recently followed up last April's decision to split with his management company Horizon (weeks after signing an extension to their contract) by taking them to the Commercial Court.
The Dublin firm not only plans a rigorous defence, but will shortly file a counter-suit, and the case is scheduled to go to trial next October.
In the meantime, McIlroy's relationship with Wozniacki continues to be the subject of media scrutiny and intense speculation.
The Ulsterman clinched his place in next week's European Tour finale in Dubai in a share of sixth place at the HSBC World Golf Championship, but McIlroy insisted he had no idea where he might go in the interim, saying: "I know I'm going to take a week off, but standing here I actually don't know where I'm going to go."
In contrast, McDowell knew where he was headed after the third-place finish behind Dustin Johnson which strongly boosted his prospects of succeeding McIlroy as Race to Dubai champion on Sunday week.
G-Mac will spend the week at home in Orlando with new wife Kristin. They married in the Bahamas in September, 11 months after McDowell proposed on the sky-high helipad at Dubai's world-famous Burj Al Arab Hotel.
Life hardly could be better or more stable for the Portrush man, whose outside interests include the Nona Blue Bistro he opened with two business partners last spring.
It's near the exclusive Lake Nona Golf Resort where McDowell resides with his new family – he counts his three biggest Race to Dubai rivals, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose and leader Henrik Stenson, among his neighbours.
Unlike McIlroy, who wanted to manage his own affairs in company with family and close friends, McDowell has forged a strong business relationship and enduring personal friendship with the team at Horizon over the past eight years.
He has won four times in the past 12 months, starting with Tiger's tournament at Sherwood last year and followed by the Heritage at Hilton Head in April, the Volvo World Match Play in May and the French Open in June. McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion, failed to live up to his own lofty expectations at this year's Majors, but last weekend in Shanghai revelled in the business end of a World Golf Championship.
Though second, just €146,866 behind Stenson in the Race to Dubai, McDowell (like McIlroy) skips this week's $7m Turkish Open, relying on third-placed Poulter and fourth-placed Rose (with the assistance of world No 1 Tiger Woods) to peg back Sweden's injury-troubled leader.
McDowell, up one place to No 11 in yesterday's world rankings, is keeping his powder dry for Dubai and the following week's World Cup of Golf.
By electing to play with Shane Lowry in his fourth World Cup for Ireland at one of his favourite links courses, Royal Melbourne, McDowell is spared the angst of choosing sides when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016. The way in which he and McIlroy dealt with this thorny issue illustrates well the difference between them.
At 34, McDowell navigated a safe course around these turbulent waters, while his young fellow Ulsterman, as ever, set sail for the eye of the storm.
Whether or not be represents the UK, Ireland or nobody at all in Rio, McIlroy plainly was determined to tackle this quandary head-on.
Very few golfers are blessed with McIlroy's genius but McDowell is every bit as bright, arguably tougher and, vitally, has 10 more years of living (and hard learning) behind him.
McIlroy is as precocious and headstrong as any young man must be to reach the top of the world. Discretion will come later but until it does, he'll continue to butt heads with convention and common sense.
His decline this year was inevitable. After reaching the summit last winter, McIlroy badly needed a break – but because he had opted to change all his clubs in one swoosh, it was essential for him to work harder than ever in the close season bedding in his new equipment.
Something had to give – and it did.
In the new year, issues with his new Nike clubs and golf ball would meld with glitches in his swing into a lethal mix of self-doubt and uncertainty which have not completely flushed out.
The question who you'd prefer to be, McIlroy or McDowell, still is a no-brainer – only this time the answer's different.