McDowell fired up for another crack at Hoylake
McDowell can't wait for Open 'grind' as he vows to use harsh lessons of 2006 implosion in Major charge
Published 15/07/2014 | 02:30
A man walks into a pub! Countless jokes have opened with that line but few as amusing as the real-life experience of Graeme McDowell in a bar in Hoylake town centre.
It was eight years ago, on the eve of the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool, and the Ulsterman was having a quiet beer with some friends when a local walked up to him and politely inquired, "are you Graeme McDowell?"
"Yeah," said the golfer, expecting to be asked for his autograph.
Instead, the young chap suggested: "You get it pretty laid-off at the top don't you?"
"I guess I do," the nonplussed Ulsterman replied.
"Well, get a bit of work done on that, will you," he was told.
"Fantastic," smiled G-Mac, ever the gent. "Thanks a lot for that."
"Afterwards, I was kind of joking with the guys, if I shoot 66 here tomorrow, I guess I'll be wanting to see that guy on the range on Friday morning," McDowell later recalled.
Famously, he did shoot 66 the next day to lead the Open.
For the record, there was no sign of your man on the practice ground before the second round, but even if he had appeared, nobody could have halted McDowell's slide down the leaderboard to a share of 61st over the ensuing three days.
The exhausted Portrush native, playing his ninth tournament in 11 weeks and his 20th of a madcap season, hit the wall.
"Yeah, Kenny (Comboy, his caddie) had just started working for me and I was in a body bag," explains McDowell, now a Major champion and one of Europe's toughest Ryder Cup campaigners as he returns to Royal Liverpool this week for his 11th Open Championship.
"I was committing scheduling suicide at the time in an attempt to make the Ryder Cup team," he adds.
"I just wasn't in a good place. We learned a lot from that year, the two of us. Kenny learned a lot about me and, thankfully, saw enough potential in me to stay with me. It's been a fun ride ever since."
Casting his eye back to 2006, his third Open and seventh Major, McDowell simply smiles.
"I experienced a couple of Majors back in those days where I got off to a good start, like I did here," he recalls. "The US Open at Winged Foot (a month earlier) springs to mind. I didn't have a concept in my mind of what it means to win over a 72-hole stretch in a Major championship, physically and mentally how demanding it is.
"That was why I kind of burnt out on the weekend here and at Winged Foot. I didn't have a sense for what it takes and that's just part of the process.
"So it's fun this week to realise and sort of acknowledge how different a player I am from the kid who led after the first round in 2006."
McDowell's ultra-light competitive schedule in 2014 is a case in point.
After an extended winter break at home in Orlando, Florida, he made his bow at Pebble Beach in mid-February; April's US Masters was only his seventh event of the year, while this week's Open is the 13th in seven months.
It took confidence to try and keep his powder dry for the high summer, though McDowell admits seeds of doubt were taking root as he wallowed well down the Ryder Cup standings prior to last Sunday week's victory at the French Open.
Okay, he probably bit off more than he could chew by paying a reconnaissance visit to Royal Liverpool on his way from the US Open at Pinehurst to Fota Island for the Irish Open.
Yet there also was a hint of anxiety in Cobh as McDowell's usually deft putting touch deserted him over the weekend and a decent opportunity to win his national championship went abegging.
In contrast, the fearsome grinder of old was seen in all his glory at Le France National as McDowell came from eight behind 54-hole leader Kevin Stadler to win.
"I'd be lying if I said to you that I hit it my best in France," he concedes. "But the competitive juices were there and you can't buy that. That's what's more important."
Hoylake this week is more green than brown and will play longer than 2006, while shifting sea breezes will render it considerably more challenging than the hard pan links Tiger Woods famously dissected.
McDowell knows he must pull all the strings together but the 2010 US Open champion, fresh after a week at home with wife Kristin as she prepares for the birth next month of their first child, exudes an aura of calm know-how and confidence.
"It's just a case of simplifying a few swing thoughts I've got at the minute," he explains. "I'm driving it decent, iron play is decent, my short game's decent, I'm putting decent. I have just got to put it all together."
On arrival last Sunday, McDowell saw an entirely different side to the links as it was swept by a driving north-westerly wind, while it blew once again up to 30mph yesterday, only this time out of the south-west.
"A few weeks ago, it was pretty calm weather and the golf course appeared fairly benign," he says. "But it's great to actually see it with its teeth showing and it's going to get nothing but tougher, firmer and faster as the week goes by.
"It is a tough test of golf," McDowell goes on. "Accuracy is essential off the tee. You have to drive the ball well. It's not overdone with rough, just enough to keep you honest. If you really get off track, it can beat you up pretty good."
Woods is unlikely to forsake his driver, as he famously did in 2006. "It is definitely longer than I remember it in 2006," explains McDowell.
"There are a lot of clubs (other than driver) off tees but Tiger's going to have to use a driver a little bit more than he did last time, put it that way.
"I've been looking at the forecast and the wind is going to switch around all week, so it'll be tough. You've got to be ready for all conditions; pick your areas that you want to be in and adapt your game-plan if and when the wind moves."
Winning in France 12 days before the Open inspires memories of the Ulsterman's victory at Celtic Manor a couple of weeks before his crowning glory at Pebble Beach.
"It's got that same build-up to it," he agrees. "The omens are good but, you know, this is a tough week. It's a grind."
The town of Hoylake has changed since 2006, nurtured by the estimated £70m a visit from the Open brings to the local economy.
Typically, La Bodega, the local pub where McDowell got that impromptu swing tip, has transformed into 'Rio's', a wine and cocktail bar. Yet the change in G-Mac has been even more dramatic. Few these days are better equipped for golf's Major marathons.