McDowell's dream year down to an injection of self-belief
FOLLOWING his sensational fourth victory of 2010 at Sunday's Chevron World Challenge, Graeme McDowell described his astonishing achievements this year as "the stuff of dreams".
Yet every foothold McDowell has secured over the past 12 months, as he climbed to a career-high seventh place in the world rankings, was hacked out of grim reality.
None like it tougher than the 31-year-old Ulsterman.
He proved it on Father's Day at Pebble Beach as the US Open turned into a war of attrition, and he was the last man standing amid the mud and stinking cordite of an unforgettable Ryder Cup Monday at Celtic Manor.
Even on Sunday at Sherwood Country Club, a golf course named for the movie 'Robin Hood', which was shot on these sylvan slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, McDowell prevailed over US golf's leading man, Tiger Woods, in a gruelling slog for survival.
After 54 holes, this 18-man end-of-season 'jolly' seemed to be headed for a Hollywood-style conclusion: the first victory of a torrid year for home-town hero Woods, who at last seemed to have rediscovered some of the sparkle of old.
Yet McDowell, working off a script all of his own, ground down the Tiger, becoming the first man ever to come from four behind entering the final round to beat him, clinching a dramatic victory on the first hole of sudden-death.
Just how much McDowell has grown in confidence this year could be gauged from the crises he overcame in those final 18 holes, not least at the 17th hole, where he somehow kept his cool and carved a phenomenal bogey out of gut-churning adversity.
Or minutes later at 18, when Woods, level once again with McDowell on 15-under, hit a stunning eight-iron to within three feet of the pin. As the crowd around the final green roared their approval, Tiger punched the air, a gesture seldom seen this year.
"Good shot, mate," McDowell called across the fairway before settling down to hit his own approach, which arced left of the flag and, after trickling down the slope, came to rest more than 20 feet from the pin.
So convinced was Woods' caddie Steve Williams that victory belonged to his employer that he had removed his bib before McDowell even addressed his birdie putt.
We've become used to seeing the New Zealander perform post-round handshakes with his bib off (and the emblem of his sponsor plain for all to see).
Yet on this occasion it represented an appalling breach of etiquette, which showed zero regard for McDowell's prospects of sinking his sweeping left-to-right putt and forcing the tournament into extra-time.
Was that a little glint we saw in the Ulsterman's eye as he shook Williams' hand moments later?
There was a distinct sense of deja vu about the play-off, even if McDowell took a three-wood, brushing his tee shot off the trees on the right and into the semi-rough.
This time he was first to hit, but his ball ended up in roughly the same position as before, while Tiger's approach came to rest around 12 feet below the hole.
Again, McDowell was equal to the challenge, but Tiger was not and a spellbinding, nerve-wracked duel, which might have been borrowed from the final day of a Major championship, had ended in a victory for the Irishman far more significant than the occasion suggested.
Having watched McDowell prevail at Pebble Beach, clinch victory for Europe at the Ryder Cup and stare straight into the eye of the Tiger last Sunday, it's interesting to recall a conversation with the man from Portrush in the wake of his Welsh Open victory at Celtic Manor last June.
As he'd sailed close to the cut-mark on Friday before leaving the rest of the field trailing in his wake with stunning rounds of 64 and 63 at the weekend, McDowell's win in Wales inevitably drew comparisons with that of Rory McIlroy the month before at Quail Hollow.
Saying it was "flattering" to have his own efforts compared with those of his young friend and countryman, McDowell went on: "Rory's probably the most naturally gifted golfer I've ever laid eyes on, a future world No 1 if ever there was one. I'd be perfectly happy to follow in his slipstream for the next few years."
Six months later, with his first Major title on the sideboard and sitting four rungs higher than McIlroy in the world rankings, McDowell has proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that hidden gifts can be every bit as important in golf as a beautifully grooved swing.
The one guy he needed to convince above everyone else was himself. Having done so, McDowell, one of the most hard-working, intelligent, bloody-minded and supremely well-organised individuals in professional golf, assuredly will go on to win more Major titles.
To his credit, McDowell was first to point out that an event like the Chevron inevitably is more relaxed than a regular Tour event and, therefore, far less exhausting mentally than the recent Dubai World Championship. Yet playing with Tiger for 36 holes gave special significance to McDowell's weekend at Thousand Oaks.
On Saturday, Woods almost looked like the imperious, 14-times Major champion of old as he swept into a four-stroke lead. That mask slipped on Sunday as Tiger stumbled to an infuriating series of errors.
How unlucky Woods was to meet a brigand like McDowell so early on the road to redemption. Otherwise a morale-boosting first victory of 2010 might have been his.
A couple of early three-putts by Tiger and three birdies in the first five holes by McDowell saw that overnight lead whittled down to one.
With European golf's most fearsome Rottweiler nipping at his heels, Woods suddenly found himself groping desperately for rhythm and balance in the 'new' swing he's been working on with coach Sean Foley.
He stumbled to a dreadful double-bogey seven at 13 and, McDowell, courtesy of a sweet birdie, found himself two strokes ahead.
However, a dropped shot at 14 and a miracle bogey at 17 -- where McDowell pulled his tee shot into bottomless rough and went 40 yards back and 30 feet up an embankment, before playing a blind wedge shot from a redundant tee box to seven feet -- ensured they were all-square going up the last.
As he proved on those final two holes, McDowell's a phenomenal clutch-putter.
He said of those two efforts on 18: "They are the kind of putts that you make them and you can't really believe it afterwards. They were the stuff of dreams -- 2010 has been the stuff of dreams. It's been that kind of year, though I'm not quite sure why."
Oh yes he is.
Guys like McDowell don't believe in dreams or fairytales. He has learned to believe in something far more substantial: himself.