Sunday 15 December 2019

Masters exam causes varying degrees of pain

Graeme McDowell will learn from his Augusta tribulations

'I was more frustrated last Friday at what Augusta did to me mentally.'. (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
'I was more frustrated last Friday at what Augusta did to me mentally.'. (Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

On the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, far from the teeming crowds of Masters week, Graeme McDowell found a comfort he has yet to experience at Augusta National. It came from his status as defending champion of the RBC Heritage Tournament at Harbour Town, where the company was suitably gifted and challenging.

They included 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, $792,000 richer from a share of second place behind Bubba Watson last Sunday. And current US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, who expressed no regrets about the more modest earnings which came his way during a lengthy period in the top flight.

"Jordan's part of the new breed of young American players, who are strong both physically and mentally," said McDowell. "Guys like him see nothing unusual in graduating from the Walker Cup to winning PGA Tour events and competing in Major championships, almost overnight.

"Growing up in the Tiger Woods era, they don't believe in having to earn their stripes or cut their teeth in the lower regions. No bedding-in period required. That's why I didn't think it fanciful of him to be aiming for a Masters win last weekend at his first attempt. That's the Woods legacy. Lack of experience is no longer a barrier to success."

Watson also spoke highly of a likely key member of his Ryder Cup line-up at Gleneagles in September. "I like Spieth's passion," said the two-time Masters champion. "And the way he can move the ball both ways. And how he can get angry with himself without allowing it to bother him on the next shot. You're allowed to get angry as a young man. That's the way I once was."

Then, as if to highlight the source of American pain at countless missed chances from Medinah '12, Watson went on: "He's a marvellous putter. This was evident in a spectacular recovery at 12 last Sunday when a four kept him in the fight, where a double-bogey would have left him too far back."

When I wondered about his thoughts on the forthcoming challenge, it became clear Gleneagles is already firmly in Spieth's mind. "I played Junior Ryder Cup there [2010] and, more importantly, I played a Walker Cup in Scotland," he said, referring to the defeat by Britain and Ireland at Royal Aberdeen in September 2011.

"That's as similar as you can get, leading up to professional golf. The fans over there [Scotland] are obviously very respectful, while pulling very hard for the home side. When you make a putt, you only hear a few cheers from the American fans. I went to Celtic Manor, so I remember what it's like. And I think it's cool. I think playing a Ryder Cup over there would be so incredible to try, especially to quiet the crowds. So I would love to have that opportunity this year."

Observing Spieth, wrapped up against the chilling winds of morning on Hilton Head Island, he didn't look much like the cool college kid of Augusta National. But his direct, confident air was reflective of the young guns who will probably have grown in number when Masters invitees are finalised for next year.

Meanwhile, the deep hurt of having missed a fifth Augusta weekend in seven years will not lead to a radical overhaul of McDowell's game, despite his dispirited words in the immediate aftermath of the cut. Instead of heading for the nearest bar, he made arrangements with his caddie to be back on the practice ground the following afternoon. "It's such a good facility, it seemed a kind of a sin not to use it," he says.

And Sunday brought more sedentary work, as he watched the final round on television. "There are a huge number of nuances to Augusta and looking at the more difficult shots I decided to take some notes to study for future reference. I found that while some of these shots can look intimidating at the outset, you find aspects of them that you can use to your advantage. It's a matter of understanding how the ball is going to react.

"Like that pin on the eighth [par-five, which Spieth bogeyed and Watson birdied]. It looks incredibly quick and intimidating into that corner. But guys leaving it a long way short . . . That's one of the things I had a real good look at."

He went on: "When I played with Bubba three weeks ago, I knew he had a great chance at Augusta. He's just tailor-made for that golf course. In fact, the statistic of six of the last 12 Masters champions being left-handers simply blows me away. It speaks volumes for what it takes.

"You are shaping the ball right to left so much and with a leftie, the slice is much more controllable than the hook. The right-hander has to hook everything and a hook has top-spin which is hard to control, whereas a slice has backspin which is a hell of a lot easier to handle. On top of that, you have the phenomenal short games of Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson and Bubba."

And where does that leave the 2010 US Open champion? "If you're talking about fundamental changes, that's not going to happen," he replied. "During the last two winters, I looked at putting some yardage on my tee-shots by working with one of those Re/Max long-driving guys, but I've concluded that it simply takes away from what I do well – my iron play, my wedge play and my rhythm. So it's not going to happen.

"At the opening ceremony [for the Heritage] the other day, I jokingly referred to this as a sort of spring break after making an 'F' in my final exam. But 'F' was a little strong. I was more frustrated last Friday at what Augusta did to me mentally rather than physically. Making me feel uncomfortable. I feel I should be stronger than that."

Then, by way of demonstrating his remarkable positivity in a craft which places so much store in forward thinking, McDowell compared the last two weeks to a similar assignment down the road. In mid-June, he will be returning to Pinehurst No 2 where he finished 80th on his US Open debut in 2005. And directly afterwards, there's the Irish Open at Fota Island, where he made his first cut in tournament golf in 2002.

"It's a bit like the Masters and this week," he said. In McDowell-speak, incidentally, this is known as a "fun decompression". And he insisted on defending the comparison, even when I pointed out the minor difference of around 3,800 miles.

"OK, so this is a lot closer geographically," he conceded with a grin. "But I really don't mind jumping on a plane and heading to Fota for the Irish Open. In fact, I'm very excited to be returning to where I made my Irish Open debut in 2002. So many wonderful memories; so special to be going back. My only other European tour event was earlier in the Great North Open at Slaley Hall where I missed the cut. And I remember Sunday at Fota and playing with Darren Clarke. And we got a bad time on about the 13th hole.

"My plan is to go to Orlando from Pinehurst on Sunday night; then on to Dublin on the Monday night, arriving on Tuesday morning. Barring unforeseen delays, I'll be playing nine holes at Fota that afternoon." Which sounded so pleasantly simple as to make you wonder what all the fuss is about transatlantic travel.

Tom Watson, in the meantime, had work to do, as in shaping the mood of a nation in preparation for the Ryder Cup.

"What happened at Medinah ate a hole in my stomach for three or four days," he said. "Worse than anything had affected me in my own competitive career."

More immediate for Spieth and McDowell, however, was a truly classic post-Masters challenge, down the way from Calibogue Sound.

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