What do you do when you’re struggling with your game and your US Open defence is less than six weeks away? Do you work harder with your coach? Do you put the clubs away for a while? Do you ride it out? Do you light candles?
In Graeme McDowell’s case, seeing the face of the beast up close might just do the trick. Call it the long, sharp, shock effect.
Just 42 days before the real thing - 42 days to “dig himself out” of the hole the game has dug for him over the past month - McDowell played Congressional Country Club from the very tips on Monday and got confirmation of the unavoidable - he has a major task ahead, in every sense of the word.
“Congressional 7,574 yards Par 71 US Open set up,” he tweeted as he battled his way around on a cool May morning. “No-one will break par.”
He was predicting that no one would break par over four rounds, of course. But that’s no surprise at US Opens where the winner has broken par just twice in the last six editions (Lucas Glover and Tiger Woods in 2009 and 2008 respectively).
McDowell closed with a three-over par 74 at Pebble Beach to win his first major with a level par total of 284 last year. He floated on air for the rest of 2010, finishing the year with four wins and the tag of European Ryder Cup hero.
New year, same man. He was third, third and sixth in his first three strokeplay starts. The game was easy. Until it wasn’t.
“It was all so easy there at the end of the last season, and the start of this year I was top 5 and top 10s for fun,” McDowell said at the US Open Media Day. “The game can beat you up sometimes, and I’m certainly starting to appreciate the good times now. You’ve got to enjoy them, and I’m glad I did last year.”
There were niggling signs of trouble when he returned after a four week break and played sporadically well in the Accenture Match Play in Tucson and in the Honda Classic. Rust, he said.
Three missed cuts (at Bay Hill, August and New Orleans) and a best finish of 42nd in the WGC Doral from his last five starts have revealed more serious problems.
As he tweeted on Sunday: “My game is experiencing some technical difficulties. Normal service will resume shortly.”
For a man who could do no wrong for most of 2010, his waning form has come as something of a shock. But it’s a welcome shock and Congressional drove home the message.
Then he came to the 494-yard, par-four 11th that features a steam running down the right-hand side of the fairway.
“I’m hoping I got the wrong tee at 11,” he said, turning the USPGA’s Mike Davis for help. “I can’t really see much positive to say about that golf hole. If you’re selling four 4s, I’m think I’m buying.”
It never got easier and after playing the 523-yard par four 18th - the 17th when the US Open last visited Congressional in 1997, McDowell could only admire its terrible beauty.
“18 is probably one of the toughest finishing holes in world golf,” he told a media conference afterwards. “Probably the toughest golf hole I’ve maybe ever played, 523 yards, a little downhill, but I hit a good drive today and still had 230 to the pin. Just a great golf course…”
Major changes have been made to the course where Ernie Els won the last US Open held at Congressional in 1997. When the South African beat Colin Montgomerie by a shot 14 years ago, it was a par-70 measuring 7,213 yards. This year it’s a par-70 that stretches close to 7,600 yards.
Blame the extra length on Tom Kite. According to AP’s Joseph White:
Ben Brundred Jr., co-chairman of Congressional’s U.S. Open committee, knew such changes were inevitable when Tom Kite, at age 55, had the lead after three rounds when the Booz Allen Classic was played there in 2005.
“So what are you going to do?” Brundred said. “You’ve got a 55-year-old guy that’s 40 yards longer than he was in his prime. The holes have to change.”
When Els beat Monty, the 18th was a par three. That hole has been redesigned and is now the par-four 10th. The old 10th is now the 11th and the old 17th, jutting out into the lake, is now the 18th.
The other major change from ‘97 is that the sixth has been converted from a par-four into a “reachable” 558-yard par five.
Fortunately for McDowell and other “mid-range” hitters, the USGA will vary tees and pins to present a test that will “probably end up be in the 7,200 to 7,400 range” according to Davis, the USGA’s new Executive Director and the man still responsible for the set up of US Open courses.
McDowell has four events in which to find some form and adrenaline. He also knows that the course will seem a lot more playable when he arrives there feeling battle ready.
“I am looking forward to the challenge of digging my way out of this again and getting back to playing well and getting back to contending in golf tournaments,” he said. “And every now and again you need a bit of a kick in the butt in this game, and I feel like I’ve had that the last couple months. I’m excited and I’m ready to go again, so it’s all good.”