I struggled but Rory can handle major expectations - McDowell

Graeme McDowell believes Rory McIlroy was born to deal with being a major winner. Photo Eoin Clarke/Golffile 2011Graeme McDowell does not believe that Rory McIlroy will suffer the head-crushing, Major championship sized hangover that saw his 2010 dream season swiftly turn into a six-month nightmare in 2011.

The 32-year old Portrush man spent the meat of this year fighting a combination of high expectations - both his own and those of the outside world - and the overpowering feeling that he somehow had to prove that his US Open win was not a fluke.

No matter how many times he told himself that he was being sucked into a dangerous dynamic, he couldn’t help beating himself up when things went wrong and the resulting vicious circle put paid to his year until he finally started to “recognise” himself again in late October.

Suffering a huge low after a massive high was nothing new to McDowell and he’s confident that he can once again use the experience as a positive, push on again and realise a few more dreams - dreams he once thought were impossible for an ordinary mortal like himself.

McIlroy is different, however, as we all know. And McDowell believes that golf’s new Golden Child will have no problem carrying the huge burden of expectation that has been placed on his ever broadening shoulders following his recovery from Augusta agony and subsequent catharsis at Congressional.

“He has been bred for this moment,” McDowell said in Dublin yesterday. “He has been a superstar for a lot of years. He has been dealing with the things I have dealt with this year since he turned pro. He’s been groomed for stardom and he will be able to handle the expectations and the pressures better than someone like myself.

“I am a guy who just happened to be good at golf and kept getting to the next level all the time. I never really had these wild dreams of being a major champion. And all of a sudden they become something that is achievable and come true. I think Rory will handle it a lot better than I did, for sure. Not to say that I handled winning a major championship really badly but it certainly affected my golf game and I don’t think it will affect his game the way it affected mine.”

McDowell rose as high as fourth in the world when he returned to action in January, finishing third in both the  Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Playing those events turned out to be the only thing about 2011 that McDowell would change if he got the chance to go back in time.

“Looking back, if I could turn back the close 12 months and start 2011 again, not that I’d want to, I’d probably take a longer break,” said McDowell, who took a month off before the Accenture Match Play but never really succeeded in switching off and getting some mental closure on 2010.

“I wouldn’t have played Hawaii and I wouldn’t have played Abu Dhabi. I’d take two months off and really have a break and come back at the end of February ready to go again. I am taking about taking two events off where I finished third and third. Hawaii is one of those places I’ve wanted to go since I was a kid - the old Mercedes, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions… Looking back, that’s the only thing I’d change. But like I say, it’s been a great learning curve for me and I feel I am going to come out of it stronger. I feel great now.”

As a major champion, McDowell is judged on his performances in the Grand Slam events and his results in the big ones make painful reading this year.

“I think the one stat I didn’t like the look of this year was MC-14-MC-MC and that’s my performances in the majors. That’s a stat that disappointed me more than any of the stats this year.

Graeme McDowell made just one cut in the majors in 2011. Pictured here in the third round of the US Open at Congressional CC by Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ie“I feel like my game is suited for the majors, maybe Augusta less than the other three but I am learning the nuances of Augusta better every year.

“I feel I have the game that is good enough to compete at majors so that is something I am going to address in 2012. I am  going to try and prepare well for the majors and look for that bit of consistency. If I can put myself in the mix on Sunday on one or two of those, it will be mission accomplished.”

McDowell’s consistency was non-existent this year. He shot four rounds in the 80s and a closing 79 at Sawgrass, where he was leading with 10 holes to play before a bad break at the ninth signalled an unravelling that was to repeat itself at regular intervals during the rest of the year.

“It’s been tough, no doubt about it. There’s been three or four events in particular – probably the last round of The Players Championship, the Saturday in Wales, Friday at the British Open, they probably will be the three lowlights of the year. The last three or four months have been great though. Great positives. I’ve probably felt more comfortable in my own skin over the last three or four months that in the first five or six months of this season.

“There was a lot to deal with. I guess perceptions of me had changed. The world was looking at me differently and I could tell. My focus wasn’t where it needed to be. The last few months of 2010 I was just playing golf on this floating cloud – golf was easy, I was calm and confident and everything was flowing and carefree.

“The first five or six months of this year were anything but carefree. I wanted it too much and was trying too hard and beating myself up too much. It was really good to get my attitude readjusted for the final four or five months of the season, get my technique sorted. I’d lost the plot a little bit with what I was doing on the golf course and lost control of my swing a little bit. Got that back on track and definitely felt a lot better about myself the last four or five months.

“I was back to being the guy I know on the golf course. My career has been kind of punctuated with years like this. Six months here or there with a lot of questions asked and answered. I normally come out of years like these stronger and more intelligent and more excited about my game. That’s where I am right now. I’m ready to go in 2012.”

McDowell felt he was going to be ready to go this year too. But knowing you’re crossing a minefield is not as easy without the map and G-Mac stood on a few mines this season, despite treading ever so carefully.

“I came into 2011 promising myself I wasn’t going to be a victim of my own expectations and promised myself I wasn’t going to try and emulate 2010,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter how much you try to ignore something. It is just there. Perceptions of me had changed and it wasn’t hard for me to tell that. Things were different, things had changed and I had to try and settle and get comfortable in that environment.  

“Then you hit the panic button. You start trying to hard. I wasn’t trying to prove anything. It is not about proving stuff. It was more about proving to myself that 2010 was no fluke, I suppose. I didn’t have that consistency. I wasn’t myself this year on the golf course for about six months. There is no doubt about that.

“The last round of The Players [79] was not me and Saturday in Wales [81] was not me. That is not the player I am. I am a lot more controlled of my emotions and my game that that and certainly I didn’t recognise the golfer.

“I remember giving you a  a quote to that effect about Switzerland about five years ago when I talked about not recognising myself on the golf course. Again I have had that experience a little but this year where I didn’t recognise myself.”

A second round 77 at the Open was the last straw for McDowell.

Sandwich indigestion. McDowell in action in round one. Picture by Phil INGLIS /www.golffile.ie“I’ve always enjoyed the mental side of the game but I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying it so much right now because I’m a bit of a mental case out there,” he said after missing the cut by two shots. “I need to take a close look at how I am thinking at the minute because I’m not thinking very well.”    

Reflecting on the summer, he said: “When I say I hit rock bottom at the Open Championship, I was rock bottom on a new scale as far as I expect more of myself. Rock bottom now is not quite so rock bottom. If I had had the year I had this year three or four years ago, I’d probably be sitting here pretty satisfied.

“So I’ve slipped from sixth in the world to 13th - what a bad year that was! It’s amazing. You realign your expectations a little bit. Expectations are very dangerous. It’s been a great year from the point of view of learning a lot about myself and a lot about how I am going forward.

“The Open was the wheels coming off and the US PGA was trying to play the game with the wheels off and that signalled the beginning of the rest of the season for me where I had to realign things with regard to my thinking, my attitude and what I was going to do.”

After missing the cut in the US PGA and then making just two of the FedEx Cup play-off events, McDowell regrouped and recovered. But there was still another blip to come.

Third behind Michael Hoey in the Alfred Dunhill Links, he lost the plot again at Valderrama. Unable to find the left to right stock shot that put him in play most of the time in 2010, he spent the weekend in the cork oaks and didn’t make a single birdie in 36-holes as he carded closing rounds of 81 and 82. He threw in the towel, he said.

“At Valderrama I probably stopped caring. I played the last 27 on the run - ‘Get me out of here, get me to China.’ At the Players I probably should have walked off the ninth green into the clubhouse in the last round. It is very difficult when you are so out of control to just regain that control. We have all experienced loose rounds where everything seems to go wrong.

“On days where you are swinging the club badly, you feel like you are having an out of the body experience. You are not thinking properly. It is very difficult … sometimes you just need one shot or one good break just to get you back on the rail again and that time at the Players everything I touched went  wrong. Good shots went in the water. Bad shots went in the water.  Good putts missed and bad putts missed. I am sure players have triggers where they can snap them selves out of rounds, but it is very hard to do.”

McDowell somehow snapped himself out of his daze over the last seven weeks of the season by finishing third in both the HSBC Champions and the Nedbank before claiming a fine 11th spot in the Dubai World Championship with a closing 66 on a course that does not suit his game.

“I feel like I am in the place I was going into 2010 or the place I was a few weeks before the US Open. I am very comfortable with my game. I am feeling good. I hit the ball fantastic in Dubai. I finished really strong. I am happy with my game, my technique, my equipment, my focus levels, my health, my mental health. These are all big key components. I feel like my ducks are all starting to line up again when a few of them had been a bit all over the place early in the season. And I really feel I am getting things ready to the point where I can be the best player I can be.  

“I am excited. I have got an injection of nice motivation back into my game. Dubai was seven in a row and I feel I could have gone on. I felt really strong physically and mentally and was playing some nice golf. So I can have a nice switch off and get ready to tee it back up again. I don’t need this break, but I am going to take it.”

McIlroy is never far from the conversation when McDowell is around and the older man is full of admiration for the mental strength his new stablemate showed in the aftermath of Augusta.

“That was impressive,” he said of McIlroy’s eight-shot US Open win at Congressional. “Very impressive. It just shows you what his attitude is like. He is quite an intelligent golfer and he has that young bounce back in him and a great attitude to the sport. That’s what you need. The difference between good players and great players is attitude and Rory has always been a great player and his attitude has always been right.

“He is obviously getting smarter and learning how to win. I’d imagine he is going to be pretty dangerous next season. That was impressive. To bounce back the way he did from Augusta. He had one of those days where everything he touched just went wrong. He didn’t play a bad front nine. It wasn’t that bad and 10 was just a hugely bad break and you start chasing after that.”

McIlroy won’t be scarred by 2011 at Augusta and McDowell does not believe that believe that his ups and downs will do anything other than make him stronger.

“I hope not. I am 32 years old. I feel like I have still got a fair but of bounce back in me as well. I am not scarred by this year. I will come out of this year better. And smarter. I know that for a fact. My career has had a few years like this - down times where I feel I have always come back stronger. That’s where I feel I am at right now.”