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Case for the defence

GRAEME McDOWELL must give back the gleaming silver US Open trophy next week, but one far more precious memento of his victory at Pebble Beach will remain forever in his possession.

It's the knowledge that whenever destiny comes knocking on Sunday afternoon at future Majors, he has the composure, confidence and strength of character to prevail.

Yet great achievements bring heavy responsibilities and for the past 51 weeks, McDowell has been learning how to live with his new celebrity status in world sport.

Learning how to survive a whirlwind of international interest stirred by his feats at Pebble Beach, then enhanced by his performance at the Ryder Cup and, almost as significantly, last December's taming of the Tiger in his own neck of the woods.

Being a Major champion is not easy, as McDowell has discovered in recent months. And as he scrabbles to recover the form and 'feel' which made him virtually unbeatable in the second half of 2010, the Portrush man now faces another mighty challenge, next week's defence of his US Open title at Congressional.

Situated in Bethesda, Maryland, Congressional has, since 1924, offered sylvan sanctuary to the high and mighty of Washington DC, including seven US Presidents.

The opportunity to mix in such lofty circles doesn't come cheap. There's a $150,000 initiation fee and prospective members can spend up to eight years on the waiting list.

As one might expect, their facilities are wide-ranging and spectacular. Of the two courses at Congressional, the Blue Course is the flagship, achieving worldwide acclaim as a tough and splendidly strategic test during the 1964 and 1997 US Opens.

Stretched to 7,574 yards (350 yards longer than when Ernie Els won there in '97) and now playing to a par of 71 (instead of 70), Congressional is also about to become the second-longest course in US Open history.

It should offer as rigorous an examination of the world's elite golfers as that endured at Winged Foot '06 and Oakmont '07, when on both occasions the winning score was five-over par.

Describing the US Open as "the ultimate fist fight," former USGA executive director David Fay summed up that organisation's philosophy when he said: "Once a year, the golfing public wants to see the field get bloodied and bruised."

Fay's successor Mike Davis, though viewed by professionals as a more benevolent soul, is still expected to set up Congressional to suit players who hit the ball long and high, which would help Wee-Mac (Rory McIlroy) more than G-Mac.

Factor McDowell's recent form into the equation, culminating in his calamitous third-round 81 at Celtic Manor last Saturday, and one might fear for his prospects at Congressional.

Yet the doughty Ulsterman is not in the least bit cowed.

Instead he puffs out his chest and, displaying the confidence drawn from last year's world-beating achievements, expresses excitement at the week ahead.

"Congressional is going to be a huge milestone for me," said McDowell, insisting he sees it as a threshold, not a trip-wire. "I'll go there with confidence and hoping to compete."

Though much will depend on the set-up of the golf course, he conceded.

"Pebble Beach probably couldn't have set up any better for me. It wasn't a long golf course. There wasn't a huge amount of rough around the fairways. It was all about positional iron play and putting.

"My iron play was really good and I putted great -- I don't think I missed from inside six feet all week," he recalled. "Pebble Beach was tailor-made for me in many ways -- we even had a little bit of a links breeze coming in off the ocean.

"Is Congressional going to be the same? We'll see. It's a long golf course and I'll need it to firm up a little bit. After last year, I've got confidence now that if I put myself in position at a Major Championship, I can go on and do it.

"That doesn't mean I'm going to do it," McDowell quickly added, pointing to the recent Players Championship, where he led going into the last round but slumped to a closing 79.

He played 31 holes that Sunday, with one of the key moments coming at 18 in the third round, when his ball took a ludicrous bounce out of the right rough and then rolled all the way across the green before tumbling into the lake at the far side. The resulting double-bogey left McDowell just one ahead instead of three and, by the time his final round eventually started two and a half hours later, he had already been back to his hotel room to pack.

"For whatever reason, I felt incredibly flat on the range before that final round and when play started," he said. "Was it physical fitness, nutrition or hydration? I really don't have an answer but there was something weird about that day."

McDowell wrestled mostly with an unruly hook at Sawgrass and the problem re-emerged at Celtic Manor last Saturday. Yet after three hard-earned days of rest at home in Portrush earlier this week, he expected to iron out this swing glitch during a session with coach Pete Cowen in Orlando yesterday.

However, the real common denominator to McDowell's poor form since the spring and missed cuts at Bay Hill, the Masters and Wentworth, is burnout. Effectively, he's paying the price for not taking an extended break of six weeks or more during the winter.

The difficulty first-time Major-winners have in striking the right balance between their commitments to family, friends, their public and the game was well illustrated by the experience of another affable Irishman, Padraig Harrington, who actually fell ill in the months following his Open success at Carnoustie in 2007.

Asked on the eve of the '08 British Open at Royal Birkdale if there'd been any downsides to winning a Major, Harrington revealed: "There's nothing I'd want to change, though there was a period just before Christmas where I overdid things.

"I did far too much, too many interviews and such. I really was fatigued. I did struggle. I got sick at the start of the year with shingles, again a sign of stress and fatigue. But that's all part of winning your first Major."

Thankfully, McDowell's swing and not his health has been the only issue. Yet there's another element of Harrington's successful defence of the Claret Jug in 2008 which may be relevant.


His days before that Open were spent worrying about a wrist strain which threatened to rule him out of the championship. This issue lifted the weight of expectation off his shoulders and, Harrington agrees, helped him join Woods as the only back-to-back winner at the Majors this century

As McDowell drifted in the pre-tournament betting this week, leaving Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Phil Mickelson and McIlroy to carry the brunt of the pressure in the absence of the injured Tiger, last Saturday's 81 almost began to look like a blessing in disguise,.

Dismissing it as a blip, McDowell has adopted an interesting approach to Congressional.

"Next Thursday morning, everyone starts level par. Once I hand that trophy back, it's no longer mine -- the guys aren't trying to win it off me."

Relieved his "rookie year as a top player" is coming to an end, McDowell went on: "I'll never have to go through that process again. Once Thursday comes and the tournament starts, I'm going to be ready to get on with the rest of my career.

"I don't want to be a one-hit wonder. I got, five, 10, maybe 15 years in my prime. I've a hell of a lot of improving to do, but I've taken a huge amount of belief in myself from 2010.

"I have the calm of mind to get the job done and I'm a good putter under pressure, which is a huge weapon," he added, smiling confidently.

"So, yeah, I want to win more Major titles."

Irish Independent