Sport Golf

Tuesday 20 February 2018

McDowell driven by pain of Spain

Oliver Brown , in Shanghai

Graeme McDowell's surge up the leaderboard of 'Asia's Major' belied the torment simmering beneath.

While all looked serene yesterday from his perch at three-under-par, four shots adrift of the leader American Keegan Bradley, his first-round 69 in the HSBC Champions here at Sheshan served merely as a tonic to his sense of being "embarrassed" and "ashamed".

The Ulsterman's angst could be traced to his grisly unravelling last weekend at Valderrama, where he botched the defence of his Andalucia Masters title with closing rounds of 81 and 82. For a player anointed as US Open champion fewer than 18 months ago, McDowell's finish on 25-over signalled a profound indignity.

McDowell's confidence had ebbed so drastically in Spain that he lost his capacity both to draw and fade the ball -- a lethal combination for a pro of any standard, let alone a Major winner. The club had become a slimy serpent in his hands.

The flight to Shanghai was, he claimed, a difficult one, haunted by helpless incomprehension as to how his game had disintegrated to this point.

"I had a long time to think about it coming over here," he said. "It was one of the more embarrassing weekends I have ever had on a golf course.

"I threw the towel in a little bit. I didn't have a shot in the bag and I couldn't make a putt either. That is how I have been this year. There's an element of being ashamed of yourself, and an element of, 'What am I going to do about it?'"

In the drizzle that fell over Shanghai's Songjiang district, McDowell appeared finally to have worked out some answers. Restored by a productive range session with coach Pete Cowen, he rediscovered some semblance of his natural rhythm, even if his round mirrored his past year and a half through its mix of great highs and absurd lows.

Briefly grasping a share of the lead at four-under, he threw it away with a triple bogey at the short 17th, his eighth, after depositing his tee shot into the bushes.

Creditably, he rallied with three birdies in his next six, which was testament to the tenacity McDowell needs at this juncture in his career. For as well as losing his best form, the 32-year-old has had to surrender his pre-eminence within his management company.

The second that Rory McIlroy joined Conor Ridge's Horizon stable, the elder man had to accept he would be taking a step down. Nothing, though, seems to depress this perky son of Portrush for long.

"Rory and I probably haven't spent as much time together recently as we would have liked to," he reflected. "I am happy to be No 2. I am back to slipstreaming my old mate."

McIlroy, whose girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki had a first experience of watching him in competition, did not quite make the statement he intended with a one-paced 70. Neither did Tom Lewis, fresh from winning in Portugal in only his third professional start. A six-over 78 constituted his welcome to the big league.

Lee Westwood was more impressive in his progress to a 69, coming close to an albatross when his approach over the water at the 594-yard 14th struck the flag.

The world No 2 has had an acquaintance with the rarest bird in golf before, thanks to a two on the 18th at Kingsbarns in the 2003 Dunhill Links.

Yet even Westwood was eclipsed by Bradley, the surprise US PGA champion, whose astonishing season was sustained through a peerless 65 yesterday.

Delivering five birdies and an eagle, the 25-year-old proved emphatically that his triumph at Atlanta Athletic Club had been no fluke. At times it was disconcerting to think that at the same stage last year, Bradley was still on the Nationwide Tour -- a young man desperate for a break.

He need worry no longer. Bradley trumped fellow Major champions McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Charl Schwartzel at last month's PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda, and offered a nerveless display here.

The only question is why he has not received a place in America's President's Cup team for the approaching contest in Melbourne.

Captain Fred Couples has taken the dubious decision of selecting Tiger Woods, and handed his other wild card to Bill Haas, the FedEx Cup winner who reached the Sheshan clubhouse yesterday at seven-over. But Bradley is left out in the cold.

Go figure, as they might say in the US team. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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