Trouble in paradise. McDowell chips out on the 18th at Pebble Beach.
Graeme McDowell threw open the curtains of his $500 a night hotel room at the Monterey Plaza on Cannery Row and stepped out onto the balcony to drink in the salty air and the stunning views.
It was Sunday morning and one wondered if the 30 year old from Portrush was dreaming of standing there a week later, contemplating the possibility of going into the final round of the US Open with a chance to win his first major title.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” wrote John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel about dreams and friendship in Depression Era California among the sardine canning factories of Monterey.
For McDowell, however, this is boom time. Following his fifth European Tour win in the Celtic Manor Wales Open two weeks ago, he tees it up at Pebble Beach this week believing that he is on the verge of great things in his career.
But on Sunday he put all that aside to enjoy a dream practice round on one of the world’s most famous courses, pausing for a pit-stop at sumptuous Beach Club overlooking the famed 17th green to watch the final play-off holes of Lee Westwood’s epic victory in the St Jude Classic with Henrik Stenson, a couple of caddies and his short game coach Peter Cowen.
“A 158-yard wedge?” McDowell asked, incredulously as his former stablemate hit the shot that won the tournament. “No way.”
“Yep,” Cowen replied. “That’s the wow wedge.”
“And it’s downwind,” Stenson said, before Westwood stepped in to drill home a putt that put his countryman Robert Karlsson to the sword on the fourth extra hole.
“This HD is unbelievable,” said caddie Phil Morbey, who had joined McDowell and Ken Comboy to walk the course for his employer, Soren Hansen. “You can see Robert’s nose peeling.”
McDowell doesn’t usually cut short practice rounds at majors to watch golf on TV but he’d been following the dramatic final holes in Memphis thanks to the Slingbox application on his iPod.
“We ran out of juice, so we just decided to pop in here,” he explained, gesturing at the Pacific Ocean and the 17th green where Tom Watson chipped in to beat Nicklaus in ‘82. “Not a bad place for a pit stop.”
Golfers are not always the most romantic of souls but McDowell is determined to make sure he enjoys the Pebble Beach experience at a major.
He’s played three AT&T Pro-Ams with a best finish of eighth in 2005, but this is different.
“Yeah, it’s spectacular. It’s really different from what you see when you come here in February and March,” McDowell said. “Sometimes you are out here and you pinch yourself because you are playing one of the best golf courses in the world in one of the greatest places on the planet.
The US Open is as good as it gets and the sun’s shining. You have to pinch yourself because you realize you’re in a very lucky position, you’ve got a great job.”
Having closed with rounds of 64 and 63 to win at Celtic Manor and put himself in position to retain his Ryder Cup place, McDowell is looking to push on with the second half of his career this summer and become a serious contender for majors.
He knows there is a question mark over his short game skills but he believes that his hard work over the last few years with Cowen has made him a more rounded player in that department and reckons he’s ready to take his chance in a major.
“My short game is improving all the time. I was hard on myself at the Masters. I probably unfairly judged my game and blamed my short game,” he said, recalling his missed cut at Augusta National. “In hindsight, my short game wasn’t that bad. I was just being super critical of myself.
“Over the last two to three years, since I started working with Pete, my short game has improved by 50 percent. My bunker play is better and better and my understanding of these shots around the greens. I remember being at Winged Foot and really not knowing how to play these shots around the greens.
“I didn’t have any control and Oakmont was the same. But I am learning all the time and Pete is the number one reason why I know a lot more about what I am doing.”
McDowell got a chance to show off his short game skills when he played the 17th with a little financial incentive on the line.
“Hey G-Mac,” Morbey said. “Bet you $20 you can’t make par here.”
McDowell jumped at the challenge and hit a high draw with a four-iron that pitched near the flag but got a firm bounce and ran through the back of the green, up against the collar of rough.
Facing a tricky downhill chip, he dinked a delicate recovery to two feet and tapped in to take the cash.
Had he gone ten yards further, he would have finished in the tall, wispy rough that surrounds most of the bunkers at Pebble Beach and done well to get the ball on the green. He knows that the short game is going to be crucial this week but he’s confident that the iron play that has seen him top the greens in regulation statistics on the European Tour this season will stand to him.
“I like what I see out there,” he said. “It’s really tough around the greens and that’s for keeps. It’s very much a second shot golf course. It’s really not a tough golf course off the tee. You only hit about five or six drivers out there. The rest of the time you are positioning with 3-woods and hybrids and stuff.
“They’ve actually kept it quite easy from tee to green but once you get up on the greens, some of the stuff is brutal. You’ve got this wispy tall stuff around the bunkers which, if you hit it in there, you could get in big, big trouble. It’s borderline unfair – borderline – but they’ve actually kept it very fair from tee to green. In and around the greens, you can get in mega, mega trouble.”
There’s mega trouble off the tee too, as McDowell discovered at the par-five 18th.
Morbey tried to win back his $20 by challenging McDowell to make birdie. But the Ulsterman pulled his tee shot a touch and was only saved from finishing on the beach by a clump of ice plant on rocks just below fairway level.
He chipped out, pulled a hybrid into the deep trap left of the green and missed from 20 feet for his four.
If the US Open is on the line on Sunday night, things will be different. He’s here to win and sees no reason why he can’t contend.
“I think you have got to believe you can win,” he said. “I believe it is a test and whoever handles that test the best is going to contend on Sunday afternoon. I come here realising that I have got a big challenge on my hands and I have got to take on that challenge as best I can.”