Bubba Watson and Graeme McDowell will return to action following their Masters heroics in New Orleans this week. But while the American will still be floating on air in the Zurich Classic following his fairytale win, many are still wondering why Rory McIlroy’s return journey to at Augusta National turned into a nightmare. McDowell is certain of one thing, getting paired with Sergio Garcia on Saturday was not McIlroy’s biggest break.
Quite apart from his struggles off the tee and some untimely three-putts, McIlroy’s Masters ended when he double bogeyed the first hole on Saturday and joined the moody Spaniard in some self-flagellation when things got worse before they got better - Garcia shot 75, McIlroy 77 - and then ironically hugged each other on the 12th green after making their first birdies of the day.
Co-hosting the Golf Channel’s Morning Drive last Friday, McDowell stopped short of saying that Garcia dragged McIlroy down with him. But he still had an interesting take on McIlroy’s disappointing Masters and his future at a venue that has given him more heartache than joy.
“The fact that they both played badly never helps,” McDowell said when asked if playing with a friend like Garcia blunted McIlroy’s competitive edge. “When you are playing with a friend and you both start to go low, you can drag each other along for sure. But the fact that they are both out there playing badly, good pals, hugging as we saw, having a bit of a man-grab on the 12th green together, it was all a little bit too fun for a Saturday in a major championship.
“When they are not in there with a chance to compete on Sunday and perhaps, if there had been more of an edge to it, I agree. If Rory had gone out there with someone he might not have known so well, he might not have kind of got dragged down the way he did in the end.”
McIlroy arrived in Augusta on a high. He won the Honda Classic a month earlier to go to world No 1 for the first time and a green jacket would have definitively buried any demons haunting him after his 2011 Sunday meltdown.
“I felt Rory had got to the end of a 12 month journey,” McDowell said. “Yet that journey that had taken him to great places, Congressional, winning mutiple times around the world, the world’s No 1 - but he was on a different journey, he was on his Augusta journey. He had to wait 12 months to get back to Augusta to exorcise some demons.
“There is no doubt, Sunday at Augusta in 2011 left a mark on Rory McIlroy. I think on Friday night he felt like he was on the verge of exorcising those demons and he got to Saturday and his round with Sergio and the wind just left his sails and he realised that that journey had come to an end.
“Come Sunday, when he was playing with me, I felt right from the off that Rory wasn’t up for the day and really just wanted to get himself out of Augusta. He realised that his race had been run and he felt like a man who couldn’t wait to get out of the state of Georgia that day.
“It’s been a 12-month journey for him and the journey had ended and the wind went out of his sails. Sometimes when that happens as a golfer, it is tough to play good and you just want to get out of there, hit the reset button and get back to business.”
It took McDowell the guts of a year to recover from his 2010 heroics but he is now confident that he is on the up curve again and ready to make a big push for more glory this year and clinch his third Ryder Cup cap.
“I have been very excited about the way I have been playing for the last seven to eight months, since September 2011,” said McDowell, who rallied from an opening 75 to finish 12th at Augusta just a few weeks after coming second to Tiger Woods in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“The new Cleveland driver has been in the bag since the first event of the season. I am driving it really straight. That probably had a lot to do with why I played so well at Augusta and why I played so well at Bay Hill.
“I drove the ball exceedingly straight there. I was able to stay out of the rough and that gave me a chance to control the ball coming in the firm greens.
“Statistically I am not driving it very long but give me some firm fairways and I am as long as the best of them. That new Cleveland Classic driver has been a great addition to my equipment. This is my second year as a Cleveland/Srixon staff player and the comfort level is increasing all the time.
“I have switched my golf ball to the new Z Star XV and it is just helping with a little more spin off my wedges and controlling my irons coming into the greens a little better. I am very happy with where I am at. The golf game is in good shape. The equipment is in good shape and I have got a busy schedule, five weeks getting into a really busy summer with the Ryder Cup in my sights.”
McDowell will head from New Orleans to Quail Hollow for the Wells Fargo Championship and from there to Sawgrass for the Players Championship, where he will be seeking redemption for last year’s final day woes.
Leading by three shots with one hole of his delayed third round to go, he got a bad kick into the water at the last and took six. It was a blow to his fragile confidence at the time and he closed with a 79 to finish a disappointing 33rd.
“I feel like I have a small score to settle but you can never go in there with expectations,” McDowell said. “I have just got to go in there feeling competitively sharp and look forward to taking that golf course on again.”
Recalling his unlucky end to his third round he said: “I’d just missed the fairway right, thought I’d hit a good second, trying to hug that right side, got a nasty kick onto the wall of death off that slope. Give me 20 balls and I don’t think I could do that again. That was a killer blow there.
“I made six there and went from having a three shot lead to a one shot lead and that kind of killed me a bit. It was a couple of hours before I teed it up again in the final round but it was a killer blow.”