McDowell Europe’s best shot at US Open glory
WITHIN minutes of his victory at Harbour Town, Graeme McDowell got the party started, flicking on his mobile phone "to give my boys at Nona Blue a call: the bar is open!"
Typically, he was there for its finish.
McDowell arrived back at his new Orlando bistro well before midnight, giving the personable Portrush man and a coterie of close friends the opportunity to bring down the shutters on a memorable day.
At age 33, when professional golfers are at their peak, McDowell's struck such a nice balance in his career and his life, he's established himself as Europe's most formidable contender at June's US Open.
Sunday's win at the RBC Heritage, his first on the PGA Tour in nearly three years since his Major breakthrough in the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, formally signaled the end of a long period of adjustment for McDowell. And the highly disciplined manner in which it was achieved should herald the dawn of a new era for the Ulsterman.
Not only is he comfortable with his status as a Major champion, McDowell has learned to appreciate the qualities which got him there and accept that the strengths of his game by far outweigh any of its limitations.
His good friend Rory McIlroy (23) may indeed be the world's most gifted golfer but McDowell has put his added 10 years on this planet to exceptionally good use. He has evolved into a phenomenally durable competitor.
McIlroy is remarkably mature for his age but his genius and the inevitable impatience of youth is a volatile mix. At his best, the Holywood native is virtually unbeatable but in fraught recent months he's shown how fragile even a great golfer's confidence can be.
Of course, McDowell has his own volcanic interludes. Yet so strong was his resolve and composure as he compiled a near-faultless 69 in winds gusting up to 44mph on Hilton Head Island last Sunday, he's clearly tapped a source of inner strength.
Life certainly is good off the course. "If I couldn't be optimistic about my world at the minute, I'll never be. I'm in a very happy place," he recently explained. "I've got a great support network off the course – family, my wife to be and a fun restaurant in Orlando, which I'm a big part of, all the little things that keep a man happy and occupied away from golf."
Finding contentment at 'the office' has taken time. "I've been working my ass off since September of 2011 to get over the US Open hangover and everything that goes with it," McDowell explained on Sunday night.
He described 2011 as "a year of understanding who I was and where I was going as a Major champion and dealing with the pressures and expectations."
Last season brought promise, especially at the Majors, but deliverance only came at Tiger's World Challenge in December.
At the end of last season, McDowell was disappointed with how he'd driven the ball since 2010. He toyed with the idea of trying to add 15 to 20 yards off the tee, but quickly realised two things – it was harder than he thought, and it wasn't his style.
"In the off-season I thought about longer shafts and swinging out of my shoes and getting fitter but it was a crash course I decided against," he said.
"I'm accepting my game more and I'm accepting that I can't move it 300 yards down the fairway. I realised it probably was going to take away from my strengths – my iron play, my wedge play, my short game, my putting."
McDowell's work on these departments over winter has propelled him from 174th on Tour in scrambling last year to the top of the charts.
It stood to him on Sunday as he prevailed over defending US Open champion Webb Simpson on the first hole of sudden death to clinch a victory which, in such trying conditions, had the aura of a Major. "It feels like something," McDowell said. "It feels different than a regular win."
With seven European Tour wins (including the US Open) to his credit, plus those two at Tiger's tournament and the Heritage, McDowell now has 10 victories in a career which has yielded more than €14.4m in prize money alone.
Yet the endorsement he takes from last Sunday's win on the Links at Harbour Town establishes McDowell as the golfer best equipped for June's US Open at Merion.