Tuesday 16 January 2018

McDowell now a man for all seasons

Graeme McDowell has had a year to remember. Photo: Getty Images
Graeme McDowell has had a year to remember. Photo: Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

IN seven staggering months, Graeme McDowell has been transformed into the most exciting golfer on earth.

A sensational, record-equalling 62 around the Plantation Course at Kapalua on Sunday left the Ulsterman one tantalising stroke shy of the play-off in America's Tournament of Champions.

Yet it emphasised once again how McDowell's Major championship breakthrough at last June's US Open has given him the licence to thrill.

Since Pebble Beach, when he emerged from four days in the most demanding arena in golf in first place with a trail of broken superstars in his wake, McDowell has dared to believe that he has the game for all seasons.

Armed with this self-confidence, the Portrush hero has pressed onwards, and ever upwards, into the stratosphere of his sport. McDowell was lion-hearted at the Ryder Cup as he clinched Europe's match-winning point and, after another true-grit victory at Valderrama last October, the 31-year-old brilliantly bearded the Tiger in his Sherwood den in December.

Unbelievable stuff which has left the world wondering what McDowell might possibly do for an encore as his new year opened last weekend in Hawaii -- especially with a new set of clubs in his bag, and on his first outing at Kapalua, where the line and pace of the tilted, Bermuda grass greens can be as perplexing to the uninitiated as advanced calculus.

Yet McDowell took only a few days to work out all the equations on this alien landscape -- then picked the Plantation Course to pieces with a masterful performance on Sunday.

A third-placed finish behind winner Jonathan Byrd (31) and the man he eclipsed on the second tie hole, fellow American Robert Garrigus (33), didn't yield enough ranking points to propel McDowell past Phil Mickelson into fourth in the world rankings.

Yet if he maintains his form through next week's Abu Dhabi Championship, McDowell might well eclipse Mickelson and defending champion Martin Kaymer, the world No 3, both on the golf course and in the global rankings.

McDowell is then scheduled to take a well-earned four-week break before resuming at the Accenture Match Play World Championship of Golf in Tucson, Arizona at the end of next month.

His build-up to April's US Masters will begin in earnest on Dove Mountain and, given the remarkably high calibre of his performances in recent months, it would come as no surprise if McDowell, and not Tiger Woods, threatens Lee Westwood's position at the top of the world at Augusta National.

Starting Sunday's final round six strokes behind leaders Byrd, Garrigus and Steve Stricker was a blessing in disguise for McDowell and spectators at the Plantation Course as it gave the Irishman carte blanche to play swashbuckling, devil-may-care golf.

Much as he revels in the role of entertainer, McDowell was delighted with this opportunity to silence those pundits who questioned his decision to switch from Callaway to Srixon/Cleveland after his successes in 2010.

He certainly seemed to have little difficulty adjusting to his new Srixon irons or three Cleveland wedges he used to have in his bag in his college days in Alabama. Beyond that, McDowell is free under the terms of his $3m per annum contract at Srixon to use the clubs of his choice, including driver, fairway metals and the trusty Odyssey White Hot putter he used to such good effect on Sunday.

"It's just great to go low, to come out and answer all of the questions this week," he said. "I realised it was going to be a difficult way to start the season with new equipment in the bag. Coming off the back of last year, there was always going to be questions.

"So it's great to come here and perform the way I have and show people that all I've done is move from one great golf company to another."

McDowell said he drove the ball "pretty awful" for the first three days, but he struck his tee shot beautifully on Sunday.

"I got off to a great start, birdied five of the first six. When I birdied 13 through 16, I started to think maybe I had an outside shot. I thought if I birdied the last I might have a chance to be in a play-off."

It wasn't to be, but his 62 equalled KJ Choi's course record and matched McDowell's own lowest score against par, the 11-under 61 he shot in the first round of the 2008 Irish Open at Baltray.

Invincible

McDowell really began to appear invincible when he rolled a treacherous 30-foot downhill putt into the cup for a stunning birdie at 15, and his fourth birdie on the spin at 16 gave him a brief share of the lead on 23-under.

Yet he had to settle for his fourth straight par-five at 18 after his lovely wedged approach somehow stopped dead eight feet shy of the hole and he "kind of shoved" the all-important putt for birdie past the cup.

There were no regrets. "I played the last six holes level par through the first three rounds and that was the difference between coming up short and having a chance to win," said Irish golf's man for all seasons with a contended shrug.

Irish Independent

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