There was a time when the golfing world ground to a halt to watch Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson go head to head. But when players that dominated the game for so long meet for the 27th time in their careers for the first two rounds of the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral’s TPC Blue Monster, Irish eyes will be firmly fixed on the highest ranked player in the three-ball, Graeme McDowell.
The 31-year old Ulsterman might be the junior member in the group, but when it comes to form and trajectory, the reigning US Open champion is very much the man of the moment.
The new world number four finds it surreal to think that he is now ranked ahead of Woods (fifth) and Mickelson (sixth). But he knows that if he can maintain the kind of form that has catapulted him superstardom over the last six months, he may soon have chance to become the first Irishman to rise to world number one.
“It’s very bizarre to be the lowest-ranked player in a group like that,” McDowell said of the arranged draw that has grouped the game’s top 21 players in ranking order. “It’s just a number, of course, but it’ll obviously be quite a surreal feeling.
“After you get over that feeling, however, you get out there and play your golf and there’ll be a natural intensity from the word go, which is good.”
Laughing at the thought of being the “senior” player in the threeball, McDowell knows that it is another opportunity to learned from the game’s two greatest active players and prepare himself for the Masters, which begins at Augusta National in just four weeks’ time.
“Yeah, senior,” McDowell said with a chuckle. “Nineteen majors (in the group) and I can only contributed one to that number. It’s great to play with the best in the world and you certainly want to play with major champions and it’s all part of the build-up to Augusta now.
“The more you play with these guys the more you acclimatise to the circus that goes with them. It’s not them that really create the intensity. It’s really the circus that goes on around them that’s a distraction.
“Thankfully I’ve played enough with them now to know what to expect. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic to play with them and I’m looking forward to it.”
While Woods is searching for his first win for 15 months in an event where he has lifted the title a record six times, McDowell’s confidence is on the rise following his course record equalling 64 in the Honda Classic last Sunday.
His share of sixth place in West Palm Beach was his fourth consecutive top-10 finish of the year and he believes he has every chance of winning for the first time since he denied Woods in a play-off at the Chevron World Challenge in Los Angeles at the end of last year.
One of the key’s to McDowell’s success is his “ownership” of his swing under coach Pete Cowen and his new-found ability to fix his game mod-tournament, as he did last week
In years gone by, Woods was the man who could take four weeks off and return to the game playing as brilliantly as before. Now it appears that McDowell has become that man.
“I was always impressed how Tiger did that unbelievably well,” McDowell said. “He used to take five or six weeks off and come back and win. And I’d wonder, how do you do that? That’s so impressive. But I am starting to get the hang of taking time off and coming back sharp. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be able to do that.”
A victory here would catapult McDowell to within touching distance of the world number one ranking and while that is only a secondary goal in comparison with his quest to capture another major title, he’s aware that it is not an impossible dream.
“I am in a position where if I keep playing the way I am playing, the world rankings will take care of themselves,” McDowell said. “Of course, I would love to be the best player in the world, whether that be for one week or a hundred weeks.
“I’d just love to get there but that is one of those things that will take care of itself if I keep doing what I am doing. My focus is on getting ready for each week and just having fun out there.”
Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy complete the Irish challenge in Miami and while the Dubliner was third here last year, McIlroy will be reliving some happy childhood memories at the resort where he first competed in the World Junior Championships as a small boy.
A disappointing tied 70th in last week’s Honda Classic, the 21-year old Holywood nativce is trying hard to make better course management decisions without losing the essence of his golfing personality.
“I’m still trying to find the balance,” McIlroy said. “Trying to keep a lot of me and not take any of the Rory McIlroy out of the game.”
Quantifying this is no more than a five percent chance, he said: “I’m just trying to do stuff that could help me just do a little bit better. I’m not trying to overhaul my game. I’m just trying to do stuff quietly.”