Graeme McDowell’s grinding determination and his improved short game paid dividends when he beat fellow US Open champion Webb Simpson at the first extra hole to win the RBC Heritage and return to the world’s Top 10.
The 33-year old, winner of the 2010 US Open as well as two of Tiger Woods’ unofficial World Challenges, opened the door for Simpson when he three-putted the 72nd hole from just off the green for his only bogey of the day.
Playing brilliantly in winds that gusted up to 45 mph at times, his two under 69 was still the joint best round of the day and enough to set the clubhouse target at nine under par.
And he was soon celebrating his first official win since that memorable major win at Pebble Beach three years ago when Simpson failed to birdie the 72nd hole and then three-putted for bogey from just off the 18th green in the play-off after McDowell had left a 15 footer for birdie, and the title, in the jaws.
“I played solid all week,” a delighted McDowell said before donning the winner’s traditional checked jacket. “I was speaking to Jim Furyk at a little Q&A we did for RBC on Tuesday.
“And he said, ‘You are never out of this tournament, you’ve just got to hang around and hang around.’ And I did that.
“I played great Friday. My putter was cold most of the week but I really got it going today.”
Likely to rise 10 places to world No 8 in today’s world rankings, McDowell might have had his tongue planted in his cheek with his “first authenthic PGA Tour win” line having captured that US Open nearly three years ago.
But he will be savouring this win more than most having worked hard to improve his short game, epecially his bunker play and chipping, over the winter months.
Denied major wins despite playing in the final group of both the US Open and The Open last year, his second victory in Woods’ unofficial World Challenge last December gave him a boost heading into a nine-week winter break.
And while he had come up just short of victory so far this season, losing to eventual runner up Jason Day in the quarter-finals of the WGC-Accenture Matchplay before coming home third behind Woods in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, he was always going to be a dangerous man in the final round.
Relaxed despite missing the cut by one in the Masters last week, McDowell was four strokes adrift of leader Charley Hoffman going out following a gutsy 68 on Saturday.
He then kept the ball in play on a tight, Harbour Town Golf Links layout and holed a string of crucual putts to make three birdies and keep a bogey off his card until the very last hole.
Hoffman, the 54-hole leader, saw his title challenge evaporate when he found water at the short 14th, made double bogey and ballooned to a 77 to slip to joint sixth.
Both McDowell and Simpson had the chance to win on the 72nd hole. McDowell missed a 12-foot par putt after his approach went over the green. It was his only bogey on the round.
Simpson had a 22-footer for birdie a short time later on the 18th, but missed to set up the tournament’s third playoff in four years.
McDowell had to chip and putt for his par at the second before getting up and down from just short of the par-five fifth from 24 yards to get to eight under par.
He then holed a 12-footer for par after being bunkered at the sixth, crucial on a windy day, before repeating the trick from short of the seventh.
This time he chose the putter from 80 feet but despite coming up seven feet short, he bravely holed for par to remain in the hunt.
With Hoffman just one clear of Simpson on 10 under through eight holes, McDowell was only two back.
But after safe pars at the eighth and ninth, he was just one behind and tied with Luke Donald on nine under when he drained a 28 footer left to right birdie putt in the centre at the 11th.
As the wind buffeted the field, McDowell made a crucial par save at the 13th, where he was blocked out in the fairway but found the front bunker before holing a 20 footer for par.
He soon found himself in a three-way tie for the lead but was quickly in front when he hit a controlled approach from 130 yards to eight feet at the 16th and rolled home the putt.
After getting up and down from over the back at the par-three 17th, he made a mistake at the 18th by knocking his speedy 45 footer from the back fringe a good 12 feet past the hole.
When he missed the return, Simpson was tied for the lead on nine under and had a chance to win outright with a birdie at the 72nd.
He missed and failed narrowly failed from just of the green in the play-off, eventually missing the return to draw sympathy from a sporting McDowell at the finish.
“I’m just disappointed for Webb there,” McDowell said. “He hit a great putt there at the first play-off hole and got a terrible gust of wind and flashed by an extra three or four feet.
“But that’s the way it was today. It was really gusty and I am just really happy to get across the line for my first authentic PGA Tour win.”
His win was also worth $1,044,000 and a move to sixth in the FedEx Cup rankings. That may well be enough to ensure he makes the season-ending Tour Championship just a week before he weds fiancée Kristin Stape.