Sunday 24 September 2017

McDowell to adopt Ballesteros bunker mentality in chase for Open glory

Graeme McDowell hits out of a bunker on the ninth hole during a practice round ahead of the British Open
Graeme McDowell hits out of a bunker on the ninth hole during a practice round ahead of the British Open

Karl MacGinty

GRAEME McDOWELL is hoping the same bunker mentality which helped Seve Ballesteros lift two Claret Jugs at Lytham will help him pass the most strategic test in Major championship golf this week.

There are 206 sand traps on this 115-year-old links, which McDowell pointed out yesterday is as many bones as there are in the human body -- and every one of them has the potential to cause pain.

Like the resurgent Rory McIlroy and born-again Major championship contender Padraig Harrington, McDowell is widely fancied to perform well this week on an Open course which offers a strong cerebral challenge.

gruelling

Even as he girded himself for a gruelling examination of his mental resolve, McDowell, who ground out a famous US Open victory at Pebble Beach in 2010, nominated Lytham as his favourite among the famous links on The Open rota.

Since he considers it impossible for anyone to emulate the feat of Tiger Woods at St Andrews in 2000 and keep out of the sand for all 72 holes at Lytham, McDowell is ready to make one, two or even more visits to some of the most punitive bunkers in golf.

This is where Seve comes in. Along with magical hands and limitless imagination, the legendary Spaniard was able to persuade himself any task was possible, no matter how daunting is seemed.

"What was it Seve said to his caddie Dave Musgrove in 1988?" McDowell mused. "He told him, 'No problem, I am the best bunker player in the world, so I don't need to worry if there are a lot of traps here'.

"I guess Seve was right, because he was up there in sand saves that week. You've got to have absolute belief in your ability at Lytham.

"That's easier said than done. It comes with thorough practice and performing under tournament conditions," continued McDowell, who this week will base Seve-like bravura on the solid foundation laid by short-game guru Pete Cowen in recent weeks.

"Pete's probably one of the best short-game coaches in the world," the Ulsterman enthused. "You've only got to look at the work he's done with Lee Westwood, who's leading the sand saves on tour this year, but would have confessed he wasn't exactly the best bunker player in the world a few years back.

"My bunker play probably let me down at Olympic," added McDowell, runner-up to Webb Simpson in last month's US Open. "It's something I've been keeping my eye on in the last three or four weeks, trying to improve and Pete's been a huge help."

Confirming that he "loves the tough tests which force you to be extra patient", the Ulsterman went on: "I like the way Lytham sets up for me. The rough's extremely thick and the bunkers are numerous but it's not unfair in any shape or form.

"Play well and you'll get rewarded. Play badly and you certainly will get punished. What I especially love about this course is no matter how the wind blows or how far you hit the ball off the tee, there's always a bunker in play.

"It's a thinking man's course and this week is like a game of chess. Compared to St Andrews, which I don't think really sets up perfectly for me because guys can blow it over all the trouble, it tests you on every yardage.

"You've got to thread drivers, two-irons and four-irons between the bunkers off the tee or you've got to carry three-woods over the top of traps and stop the ball before the next ones," McDowell added.

"It's all about positional play off the tee -- you've got to position your first shot to have a chance to do something with your second.

"You've just got to play aggressively to conservative targets. When you get out of position, you've just got to be patient, accepting and smart."

At that point, all work on the range at Lytham halted as a Typhoon-Eurofighter roared out of nearby Warton and thundered through the dense, grey rainclouds over our heads.

"That was cool," sighed McDowell.

If there are few rushes greater than hurtling into the heavens on a high-performance fighter, even the guy in that cockpit must envy McDowell and his fellow top-gun golfers.

Though he's had just two top-20s in eight appearances at The Open, McDowell still finds it a real "thrill" to play in front of vast 'home' crowds at Europe's only Major.

Yesterday morning's practice round with Open title-holder Darren Clarke and British Amateur champion Alan Dunbar -- this week attending the world's oldest Major for the first time -- was particularly pleasurable.

Yet McDowell is keeping his emotions at an even keel, saying: "Last year, at Sandwich, I was waxing lyrical about what I was going to do and within three holes on Thursday, my head was off.

"So you've got to stay patient. You must realise no matter how good you feel going into Thursday, you've got to react as well as you can to anything this course throws at you.

"That's what I'm hoping to do this week. Try and have faith in how well I'm playing and, like Seve, believe I can get myself out of any problems."

Irish Independent

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