McDowell desperate to build on 2010 glory
THE deafening chorus of accolades and applause which followed Graeme McDowell through the festive season will fall to an expectant hush today as he plays the first shot of the rest of his life at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
Inevitably, echoes of 2010 will still resonate.
As he shakes hands with Hunter Mahan on the first tee at Kapalua's Plantation Course, for example, McDowell's mind will surely flick back to their meeting on a spine-tingling Ryder Cup Monday at Celtic Manor.
And the last time the Portrush hero spent idle moments between shots gazing out across the rolling Pacific Ocean surf was at Pebble Beach last June during his victory march at the US Open.
Yet McDowell must now draw a line under the most wonderful year of his life and move on, bringing with him only the confidence and know-how it takes to prevail at a Major championship or when the chips are down at the Ryder Cup.
A career-high fifth in the world rankings, McDowell is a shrewd chap. He stresses his determination to look forward, not back; to build on the glories of 2010, not wallow in them.
"I felt like I'm in a period now where I want to maintain this world ranking and prove that I'm a world-class player by moving to the next level," he said.
"Winning a Major championship and holing the winning putt at a Ryder Cup really is dream stuff and it's going to be pretty tough to replicate this season. It's unlikely I'll be able to perform heroics like I did in 2010, though anything within the vicinity would do quite nicely.
"I know I've got to play well to maintain my world ranking and challenge the top players, and consistency is something I am striving for. I've a lot of things I want to achieve in this game and am determined just to keep on doing what I've been doing."
McDowell is the only reigning Major champion in this week's elite 34-man tournament, which is open to all 47 winners on the US PGA Tour in 2010.
World No 1 Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Louis Oosthuizen and Phil Mickelson were among those who, for a variety of reasons, considered the marathon trip to Hawaii this week not worth their while, despite a whopping $5.6m (€4.3m) purse.
Yet McDowell will have Ryder Cup comrades Ian Poulter and Francesco Molinari for company as he embarks on his first full season as a member of the US PGA Tour since an ill-fated effort to fulfil playing schedules on both sides of the Atlantic in 2006 left him mentally and physically shattered.
Cleverly, he'll use painful memories of that experience to spur him on. "I was injured in 2006 and I probably wasn't ready for the PGA Tour," McDowell said. "If you like, I'm viewing this is as my sort of rookie season over here."
There were other reasons. For a start, McDowell was not a member of the world's top 50 entering 2006 and therefore did not enjoy automatic admission to dual-ranking events like the Majors and the World Golf Championships.
Also, it was a Ryder Cup year and, as spring turned to summer, he flogged himself silly in a fruitless bid to make the European team at the K Club. Yet at the age of 31 and with a new manager, coach and outlook on his career, McDowell now is of greater substance as man and golfer.
And turning up today with a new set of clubs, cap, glove, bag and ball should help McDowell in the process of drawing a metaphorical line in the sand -- even if his new contract with Srixon-Cleveland allows McDowell to turn to an old reliable, his trusty Callaway driver, for that opening shot.
Despite last month's splendid victory over Tiger Woods at the Chevron, McDowell cannot be fancied for victory on his first visit to Kapalua, especially with course specialists like defending champion Geoff Ogilvy and his fellow Aussie Stuart Appleby in the field.
Ogilvy has high hopes of completing a hat-trick of victories at the Plantation Course this weekend, thereby emulating Appleby's in 2004, '05 and '06.
Meanwhile, '03 champion Ernie Els looked in good enough form winning the South African Open before Christmas to press for another victory in Hawaii -- on his bag this week will be Mike Kerr, former caddie to Miguel Angel Jimenez, Trevor Immelman and Nick Dougherty.
On the far side of the planet, Els' compatriots -- Retief Goosen, British Open-winner Oosthuizen and title-holder Charl Schwartzel -- look best of a powerful home team at the Africa Open, where Darren Clarke is determined to start his golfing year with a bang.
"I hope the Africa Open will give me the kind of kick-start it did in 2009," he said. "It's always great to start the season with a solid result and I'm looking forward to getting on the right track in East London.
"In 2009 I had a pretty good result (he finished second) and last year's Africa Open sparked a return to form for me, so I'm really looking forward to playing in East London. I'm hitting the ball as well as ever but just not scoring as well as I should be. My consistency is getting better and I've got to keep working on that."
Tournament of Champions,
Live, Sky Sports 3, 10.30pm
The Africa Open, Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.30am & 1.30pm