Monday 19 February 2018

McDowell has chance to get back in the swing

Reigning Heritage champion can regain his confidence after receiving Masters 'F' grade

Defending champion Graeme McDowell will be hoping his putting at Hilton Head is better than it was in the Masters at Augusta last week. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
Defending champion Graeme McDowell will be hoping his putting at Hilton Head is better than it was in the Masters at Augusta last week. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

The towering 93-foot lighthouse at Harbour Town is a shining beacon for Graeme McDowell after yet another dispiriting visit to Augusta National.

It didn't take long this week for McDowell to shake the dust of the 2014 Masters off his shoes – from the moment the defending RBC Heritage champion set foot on Hilton Head, he was back to his usual, wise-cracking self.

"The Masters is like a final exam, followed by adult spring break here," he joked at Monday's ceremonial opening of Heritage week at Harbour Town Golf Club. "I got a big fat 'F' last week though, so I'll be working harder this week."

It probably helps if Heritage winners have a good sense of humour, given the garish red tartan jacket they are obliged to wear – it's more like an old TV test card than something you would want in your wardrobe.

Yet McDowell is a very serious contender indeed around Harbour Town Golf Club's tight and strategic golf course, especially if ocean breezes make the going as tough as they were during last year's wind-blown final round.

Bitter cold and driving rain briefly dumped America's southern states back into the heart of winter this week, but the skies cleared yesterday and no disruptions are expected on the four tournament days.

BRILLIANTLY

But the Portrush man, inevitably, will be cheered by forecasts of lively north-easterly breezes gusting in off the Atlantic at speeds of just under 20mph.

He certainly reaped the wind on Sunday last year. As most of the field were blown badly off course, McDowell brilliantly came from four behind at start of play into a share of the lead with Webb Simpson before beating his fellow US Open winner on the first tie hole.

Wisely, the 33-year-old has been keeping his expectations in check, saying: "Last year's win was great, but it means nothing now. It's important to treat this like any other event and hope things go well. I enjoy managing the expectations of a defending champion, but I'm aware of the pitfalls and don't want to put too much pressure on myself."

Pete Dye built a shot-maker's dream of a golf course at Harbour Town. Unlike Augusta, power is of little significance.

Instead, precision is essential if one is to negotiate safe passage round subtle bends, clear of large trees and well-placed bunkers, and leave a clean shot into small, well-guarded greens.

"The Hilton Head area has always been on my radar and I feel like I can win here," McDowell enthused. "It's a very nice course that tests every facet of the game, and it's stood the test of time. I'm excited to be back."

Revealingly, as McDowell swept to victory last year, he tied fifth in fairways hit; shared seventh in greens in regulation; and was sixth in putts gained (the US Tour's putting average which is calculated against the rest of the field).

This golf course fits his 'A' game to a tee, though Luke Donald, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson, Jason Day and Ernie Els probably feel the same.

CHAMPION

The undoubted form horse in this week's field is remarkable 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, runner-up at the Masters after playing in the final group on Sunday with Bubba Watson.

Spieth has been "drawn" in the same three-ball as another Watson, Ryder Cup captain Tom, and Davis Love III, the five-time Heritage champion and skipper of the US team on the receiving end of Europe's Miracle at Medinah in 2012.

In keeping with a strong Ryder Cup theme, Nick Faldo, Europe's last losing captain at Valhalla in 2008, comes down from the TV commentary booth this week to tee it up on the PGA Tour for the first time since 2006.

McDowell, who features in a high-powered group with Americans Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas, is determined not to let last week's disappointment undermine his form or confidence in a season which so far has seen him take five top-10 finishes in the States.

Currently on top of the US putting charts, he firmly believes he can turn the Masters into a mere blip and get back to business as usual for high summer and a series of top-flight events at which McDowell feels perfectly at home.

"Obviously, I like Hilton Head, then I move onto the Players Championship, which I really like, and then into the US Open (at Pinehurst) and The Open (at Hoylake), which are my two best chances at the Majors," he said.

These are heady times for McDowell, off the golf course as well as on it. His wife, Kristin, expects their first child, a daughter, in September.

One wag wondered if they might name her 'Augusta' adding: "That's about the only way he can count on getting any love from Augusta in future".

Yet there's no better place for G-Mac to salve his Masters disappointment than at Hilton Head.

Meanwhile, Michael Hoey, Shane Lowry, Simon Thornton and Damien McGrane lead the Irish challenge in the Malaysian Open, which got under way at Kuala Lumpur Country Club this morning.

RBC HERITAGE, SKY SPORTS 4, 8.00PM

MALAYSIAN OPEN, LIVE, SKY SPORTS 4, 7.00AM

Irish Independent

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