Twelve months ago Graeme McDowell won the Andalucia Masters to break into the world’s top 10. Sergio Garcia was 68th and playing in just his second event following a 10-week break from the game that was interrupted only by his assistant’s role in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, where reigning US Open champion McDowell was the hero of the hour.
Fast forward a year and Garcia is back with a bang - a winner for the second week on the bounce following a one-shot victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez in a event where Clara’s Shane Lowry emerged from a mini slump to equal his best performance of the season by finishing fourth.
If this was one of the greatest weekends of Garcia’s career, it was McDowell’s worst. Literally. With his swing AWOL, the Ulsterman followed an 81 on Saturday with an 82 to finish dead last in the field with five shots to spare on 25-over par 309. [His previous worst 72-hole aggregate in Europe was 18-over 302 at Valderrama as a rookie in the 2002 Volvo Masters (72-81-69-80) though he also shot 21-over 301 in the 2005 US Opens at Pinehurst No 2.]
It’s stating the obvious to say that his has been a nightmare follow up season to the greatest year of McDowell’s career. Still running on adrenaline in Hawaii in January, he kicked off with a couple of top 3’s, took a month off, and returned with a couple of top 10s in the Accenture Match Play and the Honda Classic.
Since then the best he has managed is a quarter-final appearance in the Volvo World Match Play and third place behind Michael Hoey in the Dunhill Links. The Majors? Disappointing. While he was 14th behind Rory McIlroy in the US Open, he missed the cut in the Masters, the Open and the US PGA and shot in the 80’s four times - the other two poor rounds came in the Arnold Palmer Invitational (1st round 80) and Saab Wales Open (3rd round 81).
There was also the closing 79 in the final round of The Players, where he emerged from the doldrums to lead going into the final round only to see his game fall apart.
“I just didn’t have it today. It was the first time I have been under the gun for a while and perhaps that played a part,” he said at Sawgrass. “My energy levels were not quite there. I just didn’t have it.”
Forget about the lucrative change of equipment companies from Callaway to Cleveland-Srixon at the end of last season. As far back as April, a tour insider with an expert knowledge of golfing fitness suggested that McDowell would struggle this year, not because he was trying to follow up an incredible 2010 season, but because he simply didn’t take a proper winter break.
The Portrush man has been battling his swing since the Honda Classic and recently took a break from Pete Cowen to return to the discipline of old coach Clive Tucker.
The player himself used Twitter to explain his mental state after a weekend battering at the hands of a Valderrma course that can make even the best players look foolish if their games are off the boil. Unsurprisingly, 140 characters weren’t enough.
Tweet 1 - “The great thing about golf is I will be level par again on Thursday. Hit every tree at Valderamma this weekend and putted awful #bogeytrain”
Tweet 2 - “My swing is elusive for me at the minute. Good swings are great but bad ones are out of control. Gotta keep working. I know it’s in there.”
Tweet 3 - “Picked the wrong course to get the lefts and hole nothing. Took a few risks when out of position and got in worse trouble. #double #triple”
Tweet 3 - “Off to Shanghai tonight. Will be a long flight to think about what state my game is in right now. Should have some answers at the end.”
Garcia, on the other hand, can do no wrong these days and his 10th European Tour win - the first by a Spaniard in a strokeplay event at Valderrama - has put him back into the world’s Top 20 and at the top of the European Ryder Cup standings.
The 31-year old closed with a level par 71 to win by a shot from veteran Jimenez (70) on six-under with Richie Ramsay’s (70) final hole birdie denying Shane Lowry a share of third.
The Scot’s birdie cost Lowry €18,900 but the 24-year old Offaly man wasn’t complaining after a final round 67 earned him a cheque for €150,000 (the second biggest of his career) and a place in the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
“It’s been a good week. I played great golf all week and I gave myself a chance to win today,” Lowry said after jumping 20 places to 43rd in the Race to Dubai. “I gave myself a couple of chances on the last two and I am quite disappointed now to be honest. Looking back at this time tomorrow, I’ll be happy with the result.”
Reminded that his closing 67 was his first sub-par round in eight trips around the famous Sotogrande layout [he’d shot level par 71’s four times], Lowry grinned and said: “This course, it’s hard to describe how tough it is. I knew I needed five or six under to have a chance today and all I was thinking about was trying to go out and win.”
Seven shots behind Garcia starting the day, Lowry birdied the third, fourth and fifth to move into contention at two under par.
After a lone dropped shot at the tough seventh, Lowry birdied the 12th and 14th coming home though he was left to rue several missed opportunities as he finished just three shots behind winner Garcia on three under.
“I got off to a good start and just hit a bad tee shot on seven and made bogey. But I just kept it going and only to have one bogey around this course is good and I’m really pleased.
“My putter was really hot all week but that putt on 17, I don’t know what happened there. I was quite nervous over it and nerves just got the better of me there, I think. But all in all I am happy with the result.
Lowry’s disappointment was tempered by a cheque for €150,000 and a jump of 20 places to 43rd in the Race to Dubai standings, securing his place in the top 60 who qualify for the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
“It means I’m in the Dubai World Championship and I can plan out my end of season schedule properly,” said Lowry who narrowly failed to qualify for Dubai last season. “I’ve been playing very well for a couple of months now, but have been struggling with my putter. Finally it was nice to get a good result, and in as big a tournament as this one, it’s seriously improved my Dubai position.
“You are not really playing against the other players here but against this golf course and to shoot three under around this course for four rounds, I am proud of myself.”
Garcia was immensely proud of himself too as he won back-to-back events for the first time in his career to complete his comeback from three years in the doldrums.
“I knew that I had game, because I had it before, but obviously, when your head is not in the right spot it doesn’t matter how much game you have, your muscles won’t listen,” Garcia said.
“I’m just happy with my year. We all know how difficult golf is. This is a working process, I’ll keep working on it, and trying hard and enjoying it.”
Peter Lawrie signed off with a 69 to share 15th place on four over par with a cheque for €41,400 moving him up one spot to 53rd in the Race to Dubai standings with €558,417 and all but assured of his place in Dubai in December.