McIlroy and McDowell forever seeking small gains
Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell during a practice round at the recent Ryder Cup. Picture Eoin Clarke,

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell during a practice round at the recent Ryder Cup. Picture Eoin Clarke,

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell are poles apart when it comes to the way the play the game but the Irish pair will be looking for the same result in the final examination of the European Tour season - a victory to underline their already solid belief that they are improving all the time.

The DP World Tour Championship gives world No 1 the chance to put a $2.58m silver bow on a stellar season — $1.33m for winning the title and a guaranteed $1.25m cherry on top from the Bonus Pool having already clinched the Race to Dubai for the second time in three years.

Of course, McIlroy's career will be measured not in dollars or money list wins but in majors.

McDowell also aspires to a place in history books but the money he wins this week will also give him a reason to look back on 2014 —  a season that brought victory in the Open de France and nine Top-10 finishes in 21 starts — with even greater fondness. 

In fact, given the pressures on his time as a family man following the birth of his first child in August — daughter Vale Esme — McDowell admits that he would have struggled to justify travelling to Dubai had he not made a significant move in the Race to Dubai by finishing third in the recent WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

“I will be genuinely honest and say I contemplated not being here this week,” said McDowell, who is 11th in the Race to Dubai and on course to finish among the Top 15 who will share the $5m Bonus Pool. 

“It was really based on performances in China. That was me being really selfish. I am not going to come to Dubai unless there is a chance of me taking something home from the Bonus Pool. Coming to a golf course which is not a happy hunting ground, chasing 13th in the money list is not really going to motivate me."

Making sure he is leaving his wife and daughter at home for all the right reasons is added motivation.

“I’ve got to have a reason to get on a plane. That third place in Shanghai gave me the reason to come here because, third or fourth in the Bonus Pool is achievable. And that’s what I am looking at.

“I am either going to be at the bottom end of the Bonus Pool or even get knocked out of it if I don’t play well. And the rewards for a Top 3 or 4 are there. I am here to be aggressive this week. I am here to try and compete this week. 

“Tee to green I have played this course well enough. I have had a little look at my stats around here the last four or five years trying to put my finger on why it is I haven’t competed better. It’s not a length issue. There are a few subtle iron play things to address, a little bit of a putting thing.

“But the capabilities are there so I am just trying to mentally shake off the stigma I have around here. There is no reason why I can't compete here. Like I say, I am here to do a job this week.”

McDowell admits that he was beginning to doubt himself at the end of 2012 but his performances over the last two years have given him new-found confidence that was bolstered by September’s Ryder Cup.

The birth of his first child in August has also given him more reasons than ever to hit the practice ground and seek improvement.

“There is an innate responsibility there,” he said of fatherhood effect. “I think it also motivates me within my sport because I want my daughter to see what I am accomplishing and do some things she can be proud of during her consciousness as opposed to ‘Daddy used to be a good golfer.’

“With the balance in my personal life I do feel more motivation out there, which is great. I know I am in a good place off the course, so I want to transfer that to my professional life and keep giving myself opportunities to win out here.”

McDowell initially struggled to cope with the pressures that come with becoming a major winner. But he has since grown into that role and is fascinated to know how the 2014 version of G-Mac would do against the man who won the 2010 US Open.

“I always think it would be interesting to be able to play yourself,” the 35-year old said in Dubai on Wednesday. “That would be cool. I’d love to play the 2010 version of me and see what I spoke like and what I chipped it like, what I putted like and how I drove the ball because I feel like I am a better player and have more belief in myself now than I ever did. It would be interesting to play that guy, play nine holes and see what I thought of him.

“I am definitely more slender and a bit stronger than that guy. But I guess within yourself you have to just know that you are getting better. In this game, it is just about moving that learning curve, which was steeper in 2010 that maybe it was in 2011 and 2012.

“Perhaps that’s a hangover from adjusting to where I had got myself so 2013 and 2014 have been about the realisation that I deserve to be here.

"The Ryder Cup gave me a huge amount belief again after an 18-month period where maybe I was beginning to start to doubt myself, getting obsessed by the long hitters in the game, getting obsessed by trying to become longer off the tee and getting away from what I do well — wedge play and putting.”

Playing just three matches in Gleneagles, where he helped get the best out of Victor Dubuisson before leading Europe off in the singles with that gutsy comeback win over Jordan Spieth has given McDowell a new lease of life.

“The Ryder Cup instilled the belief back in me again,” he said. “Even before the Ryder Cup, I came to the realisation that I needed to get back to doing what I do best, not what Rory McIlroy does, or Dustin Johnson does or Brooks Koepka does. I need to play the game my way, the Jim Furyk way, the Zach Johnson way.”

McDowell’s coach Pete Cowen explained that top players sometimes become frustrated that they are not seeing improvements. That's because they fail to realise that at the top level, improving what is already great is incredibly tough.

“They don’t realise how good their bad golf has become,” Cowen said. "That's where they should be looking — closing that gap between their best golf and their worst golf."

That fact hit home for McDowell in Shanghai, where he played poorly on three of the four days and might have pulled off a wire-to-wire win had Bubba Watson not holed a bunker shot for an eagle on the 72nd hole to set up a playoff that McDowell failed to make by a single stroke.

“For sure,” McDowell said. “I think your goals are a bit more subtle that they used to be. Obviously winning tournaments and winning majors are certainly not subtle goals. Your goals change a little more but knowing yourself that you are getting better and performing at a high level more consistently and realising it is about putting yourself in positions like I did in Shanghai two weeks ago and realising you are not going to win them all. 

“It’s like being able to take the positives away from a week where I didn’t play my best but I led a WGC field for three days and perhaps in the end should still have had a chance of being in a playoff. I took some good stuff away from that. 

“Realising that your bad golf is so much better, that’s a key. Pete has been phenomenal for me for the last six years. I have never met a coach who is as enthusiastic and into it as Pete is. It’s great to have that kind of muscle in your team room.”

McIlroy confessed in his look ahead to the week that he is now a far more accomplished player than he was even two years ago, when he birdied the last five holes to pip Justin Rose by two shots and win the DP World Tour Championship and the Race to Dubai.

Winning after a six-week break will take some doing against the likes of Henrik Stenson or Justin Rose, to name two of the title favourites. But with two major wins, a WGC and the BMW PGA on his CV already this year, it would be foolish to write him off on a course that suits his game.

“I always feel like I can get better, even if the improvements are not that noticeable,” McIlroy said earlier this week. “You mightn't be able to see them. They mightn't be obvious improvements. They might be little things I've tried to improve, and I feel like I've gotten better at. But there's always things that you can do to try and get better. 

“For me right now, it's just about fine tuning everything that I have because I feel like I am in a really good place with my game and it's just about trying to keep that level of consistency as high as possible.”