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Conquering fear factor

MAJOR champions don't come any sharper, brighter or tougher than Graeme McDowell.

Few are better equipped for the bruising mental challenge of the US Open, a tournament which slams haymakers into the golfer's resolve like Julio Cesar Chavez.

McDowell, the last man standing at Pebble Beach two years ago, added another chapter yesterday to his epic US Open story about 120 miles up the Californian coast in San Francisco.

Despite his victory at this championship two years ago and his obvious ability to cope in the forbidding environment of the Lake Course at Olympic on US Open week, McDowell was on few people's radar at start of play last Thursday.

Much of the focus instead fell on defending champion Rory McIlroy, whose record-shattering runaway win at Congressional 12 months ago led many to hail this 23-year-old son of Ulster as the natural successor to Tiger.

In fairness to McIlroy, Olympic could not have differed more markedly with Congressional. After four "soft days, thank God" in Washington, the usual harsh realities of life at the US Open were restored with a vengeance in San Francisco.


So it really came as no surprise when McIlroy, currently trying to recover his 'A' game after a recent form slump, missed last Friday's cut.

As he headed straight home to Ulster to begin his preparations for the upcoming Irish Open at Royal Portrush, McIlroy appeared very fortunate indeed to have a 'big brother' in golf like McDowell to look up to.

For all of McIlroy's astonishing talent, McDowell gives him so much to emulate -- how to grind it out in adversity, how to cope with the panic and the stress which inevitably rise in the gorge on the weekend at Major championships.

Even the greatest can crumple like paper cups under the pressure, as Tiger Woods did on Saturday, the cool confidence which had carried him into a share of the 36-hole lead simply evaporating in the afternoon sun.

All the frustrated hopes and fears of four tumultuous years without a win at the Majors since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines were focused to a searing fine point, like sunlight through a magnifying glass, as Woods prepared to hit the opening shot of the third round.

It was make or break, hit or bust and Tiger's new swing, albeit impressive, simply wasn't up to it.

Woods was so good on Thursday and Friday, one looks forward with relish to his impending return to the winner's enclosure at the Majors but on Saturday, he offered us a perfect example of golf's meat-grinder at work.

Even McDowell, a winner of this championship 24 months ago, was not immune to the ravages of self-doubt over the weekend at Olympic.

He'd looked cool enough under pressure during a mid-round crisis at nine on Saturday to warrant an audition for James Bond -- McDowell rebounded 007-style from a 'Tarzan' bogey out of the trees there to shoot three birdies on the back nine and take a share of the lead with Jim Furyk into the final round.

So it was intriguing to hear the Portrush hero reveal how close he had come to having a genuine panic attack on Saturday morning and how he relied on 'Team G-Mac', with dad Kenny and his caddie Ken Comboy to the fore, to talk him down from the parapet.

If Major championships usually boil down to the back nine on Sunday, the tension and anxiety can reach near-intolerable levels for the contenders on Saturday morning.

Golfers don't put their bodies on the line -- 'only' their soul and their self-esteem.

McDowell illustrated just how deep inside they dig when he said: "I remember two years ago at Pebble, Saturday being a really difficult day for me, mentally and emotionally, and it was the same way here.

"As I was getting ready to come to the golf course, I felt a little nervous and anxious and really not sure how the day was going to go. And I spent a little time with my caddie and my team just kind of talking about what we were trying to achieve and got my head screwed back on again."

Having worked for six years with McDowell, becoming one of his closest friends in that time, Comboy "has heard it all before. I've gone through these emotions all the time. It's basically fear. Fear of going out there and messing it all up".

"I remember reading Dr Bob Rotella's book when I was a kid. The two fears we all have are the fear of success and the fear of failure," McDowell added.

Pebble Beach and clinching victory for Europe at the 2010 Ryder Cup in Celtic Manor forever banished any fear of success, and McDowell admitted: "I only fear failure, really. We all do.

"But I think being able to verbalise it with my team, talk to them about it puts it in perspective... and you've got to put the game in perspective," he continued.

"I was just scared of going out there and messing up. Talking to my team, I realised there's probably 71 other guys feeling the same way ... and 84 guys already have messed it up! It put it in perspective a little bit.

"I think the handicap golfer can probably relate to some of the feelings I had there. They'd probably be surprised that, yes, we're human beings and we have negative thoughts. It's just that everyone has their ways of dealing with them.

"I like to talk to my team about it. My caddie tells me to wise up and other expletives. He gets me thinking correctly. I'm lucky I've got a good team around me to help me with that. I did some work with Bob Rotella, but it was me doing the talking. I knew what he was going to say back to me.

"Sunday at Olympic is not going to be the be-all and end-all for me. Hopefully I've got a few more years in me. I can go out there and just try to do any job. If it's good enough, great. If it's not, perhaps I'll drink a cold beer and get over it.

McDowell is a passionate guy -- it's inherited from his dad Kenny, so nobody better understood how his world-beating son was feeling on Saturday morning. "Kenny was simply great in that meeting," said his manager at Horizon, Conor Ridge.

"He reminded Graeme of all he's been through and all he has achieved to get here and how it will all stand to him this weekend. It really was uplifting."

Which makes it all the more appropriate that golf's most gruelling championship, the US Open, comes to a climax each year on Father's Day.

Irish Independent