Graeme McDowell could never be accused of being an underachiever - quite the opposite - but given the high standards he’s set for himself over the past four years, the Ulsterman will head into 2013 with renewed confidence in his abilities if he can end a two-year victory drought in Tiger Woods’ season-ending World Challenge in California.
Recently engaged, richer than Croesus and about to move into a palatial new home at his Lake Nona base (he’s got a restaurant there too), the 33-year old from Portrush has little to complain about other than the fact that he hasn’t lifted an individual trophy since he beat Woods in sensational fashion in this event to close out a mesmerizing 2010 season.
Three strokes clear of the rest in an 18-strong field at a soggy Sherwood Country Club at halfway, the two-time Ryder Cup winner was close to his best in last night’s third round as he made four birdies in the first 11 holes before finishing with a run of seven straight pars for a 68 that gave him a two-stroke lead over Keegan Bradley (67) on 13 under par.
“I felt I played better than that but the scoring hasn’t been as good as people might expect or players might expect because the course is there for the taking, as soft as it is and as good as these greens have remained,” McDowell said of his 68. “But 67 was the low score today and I was expecting it to be lower.”
It wasn’t quite vintage McDowell but it was close - unerring accuracy from the tee and canny course management sprinkled with a handful of key putts - as Woods birdied three of his last five for a 69 that left him five behind in a tie for third with Bo Van Pelt (70) on eight under.
“I was very happy with the way I played - bogey-free 68. Seven straight pars to finish,” McDowell said. “I hit a lot of disciplined iron shots, would have liked to have picked a couple more (birdies) up but you know what, I’m right where I want to be going into a Sunday afternoon, playing with Keegan, good guy, good friend, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
McDowell has played 53 events since he slew Woods with his putter in that 2010 play-off at Sherwood Country Club. But he hasn’t rolled it as smoothly since then and fallen from sixth in the world to 24th this week. Hardly a drama but an indication of the importance of racking up the odd win if you want to remain in the world’s top 10.
Not that he’s been in a slump. He’s had three runner-up finishes as well as 12 Top-tens over the past 24 months. Yet he hasn’t managed to drag himself over the line and as he faces another busy year in 2013 - as well as a September wedding - he’d love to start back at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in February with another victory on his CV.
His runner up finish on his debut at Sherwood in 2009 was certainly a major turning point in McDowell’s career and this could prove to be another watershed week.
Called in at the last minute to replace Woods, who had crashed his SUV in a tree and a fire hydrant outside his Florida home on that infamous Thanksgiving night, McDowell’s second place finish to Jim Furyk earned him enough world ranking points to move well inside the world’s top 50, setting up a stellar 2010 season that brought him his maiden major, the US Open at Pebble Beach, Ryder Cup legendary status at Celtic Manor as well as three other victories, including a cherry-on-top play-off victory over Woods at Sherwood.
“There’s no doubt I have to look back at this event as being part of the catalyst,” McDowell said this week. “It’s amazing how the stars kind of align sometimes and give you a unique opportunity, and sort of the rest is history if you like.”
Asked if he’d be feeding off the memories of his 2010 playoff win over Woods in Thousand Oaks, McDowell said: “There are so many good memories for me on this golf course. I always enjoy playing it. There are a lot of birdie chances. If you can drive the ball well, you can attack these pins and the fans have been really nice to me this week. I guess they remember by win from a couple of years ago, how fun it was.”
While he came close to winning two majors this year, making the final group in both the US Open at The Open, he walked away empty handed in both.
He’d settle for a win of any kind right now just to put some closure on a season that, while full of great things, ended up being more frustrating than satisfying
“Anything can happen tomorrow,” McDowell told the Golf Channel. “There are a lot of good players in this tournament, very hard to win golf tournaments and I have just got to go and play my ball and hopefully I will have a chance down the stretch tomorrow.
“I’d love to win, no doubt about it. I’m sure Keegan will and Tiger is lurking as well. There are plenty of guys on this board would love to win. But you can’t want that too much. You can only go and try and go through the processes.
“And you know what, if I pick that trophy up tomorrow night, it will be a great feeling. But if I put my heart and soul into it and it doesn’t happen, I will be okay.
“But there is no doubt that winning breeds winning and we all love winning, that’s for sure. It’s a good feeling.”
McDowell certainly looked comfortable with his game. While he started by missing a four footer for birdie at the first, he rolled home a bonus, 35-footer up the hill at the par-five second for birdie to move two strokes clear of Bradley on 10 under par.
At the fourth he came up 30 feet short but again rolled in the putt to go three clear again before maintaining his momentum with a nine-foot par-saving putt at the seventh.
Bradley closed the gap to two again with a birdie at the par-five 11th but McDowell hit his approach to five feet at the ninth to turn in three under 33, then putted dead from 80 feet from the apron of the 11th to get to 13 under.
He wasn’t quite at his best for the remainder of the back nine, grinding out pars at the next seven holes to go out in the final group on Sunday in an important event for the fifth time this season.
England’s Ian Poulter, running on fumes after a long season, posted a one under 71 to share 15th place in the 18-man field on level par.