Graeme McDowell might have had an average day on the speedy greens of Sherwood Country Club but in outscoring big-hitting playing partner Rory McIlroy by a stroke he proved that power is not always the answer.
A level par 72 to McIlroy’s 73 in his defence of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge left him five strokes adrift of Zach Johnson, a player of similar qualities, but still well-placed to rack up his third win in his last four starts in Tiger Woods’ season-ending bash.
Tied for sixth in the select, 18-man field, McDowell was outdriven by up to 40 yards when McIlroy opted to unsheathe his Nike driver and hit it straight.
It’s a situation that’s nothing new for the 2010 US Open champion. But while he insists that he has abandoned all thoughts of bursting a gut to find an extra 20 yards off the tee, he admits that he must find a way of upping his consistency with the big gun ahead of a 2014 season that will begin in the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in eight weeks’ time.
“He always makes me feel short,” McDowell confessed after a round featuring four birdies, four bogeys and a couple of three-putts.
“It’s guys like him that make me go home and scratch my head and think, right, what am I going to do here, I’m going to start throwing some weights around, I think, hopefully find 10 yards.
“[Rory] reckons he flies it 310 yards through the air. I fly it 270 yards through the air on a good day. There’s 40 yards right there. But he’s the exception. I’m closer to the rule.”
In truth, McDowell knows that he must forget about distance, which is rarely a huge factor in the majors, and concentrate on his strengths - accuracy off the tee, controlled irons and surgical wedge play inside 100 yards.
But he also admits that 2013 was far from his most consistent year with the driver and he will be taking steps to improve that over his winter break.
“Dustin was incredibly impressive,” he said, recalling Dustin Johnson’s exhibition of driving excellence in the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he came home third behind the athletic American.
“You can hold that against yourself, go to the drawing board and think, right, I’m going to spend the next two months thrashing drivers and see if I can put on 20 yards, and my wedge play goes to crap, that’s a mistake you make.”
McDowell has to work hard to avoid that temptation and remind himself that he must play to his strengths.
“You’ve got to take pride in what you do,” McDowell explained. “You’ve got to look at Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, you’ve got to look at the Zach Johnsons and say these guys get it done. These guys won majors, these guys could be the world No. 1 players. So I’ve got to look at it that way… I’m never going to make myself into a Rory or a Dustin at this point in my life. My best days are gone.”
McDowell struggled to name players who have ruined their games searching for distance but did admit that he “toyed with the idea at the end of last year and quickly threw it out.”
“Like I say, I need to drive the ball better than I am right now, but I don’t need to reinvent myself. I need to get a little fitter and a little stronger, yeah, but not as a detriment to my iron play and my wedge play, my good stuff.”
Little wonder then that he is losing little sleep over the Masters and the driving challenges he faces at Augusta National every year.
“Augusta is a tough one for me,” he said. “I certainly don’t build the early part of my year around Augusta because I’m not an Augusta type player yet. You know, of the 25 opportunities I’ll have never year, unfortunately Augusta is probably not in the top 10. So try and sneak up on Augusta this year.”
For the first few holes yesterday, it looked as though McDowell was about to take Sherwood Country Club apart and shoot in the 60s for the ninth round in a row.
Birdies at the first and par-five second gave him reasons for optimism but he missed the fourth fairway, couldn’t reach the green and dropped a shot after slightly overhitting a tricky chip from just off the green.
McIlroy also birdied the second, getting up and down from the trap right of the green as McDowell cooly two-putted on greens that were frozen overnight, leading to a one-hour delay to the starting times.
But like McDowell, he bogeyed the fourth, pushing an enormous tee shot into the hazard before failing to get up and down for par after a penalty drop.
That there are more ways that one to skin a cat was made evident by the way they played the fifth.
McIlroy, who had saved a brilliant par at par-three third with the most delicate of sand saves from a tough like after another pushed tee shot, looked dismayed to carve his approach to the uphill par-five.
McDowell had been forced to lay up after pulling his tee shot left of the bunker guarding the left side of the fairway but then followed that with a trademark wedge that flew over the stick and sucked back to tap in distance.
Denied the aerial route by the overhanging branches of a sentinel tree, McIlroy had left himself a tough recovery from the right rough and raced it 30 feet by. But he holed the putt for birdie to get back to one under par to McDowell’s two under.
His joy was short-lived as he clumsily three-putted the sixth, lipping out after leaving his approach putt close to four feet short.
The difference in power was evident at the seventh, where McDowell hit a good drive down the left side and watched as McIlroy launched a missile that carried the rocks in the centre of the fairway and came to rest 40 yards closer to the green.
And yet it was McDowell who walked away with a par-four to McIlroy’s bogey five.
Left with only a short iron to the green, the recently crowned Australian Open champion overshot the green, leaving himself a tricky recovery over a knob. Electing to putt, he was fooled by the pace and moved his ball just a few yards to the fringe from where his speedy 15 footer for par slid five feet past.
He holed out well for bogey but was now three shots adrift of his former stablemate at one over par.
After burning the edge of the hole with a great birdie try at the par-three eighth, he looked on as McDowell failed to two putt from long range. The Ulsterman’s tee shot had come up well short and he failed to judge the speed and the break of his tricky approach putt and missed from six feet for par.
Both missed birdie chances at the ninth and with no-one in front of them, they sped through the front nine in one hour and 50 minutes.
The back nine was better from McIlroy, who birdied the short par-four 10th from close range to get back to level par.
McDowell birdied the par-five 11th to get to two under but three-putted the 12th and dropped another shot at the 14th before parring his way home.
McIlroy could not birdie any of the par-fives coming home and did well to drop just one shot at the 15th, where his flushed tee shot came up short in the water.
He walked jauntily away as McDowell stopped to speak to reporters and will know that with just six shots separating him from the lead and with tough conditions forecast for the weekend, he still has every chance of challenging for another win at the back-end of a season he’s keen to put behind him.
As for McDowell, the Ulsterman was reasonably pleased to shoot level par on a day when just five players finished the day in red figures.
“I guess my last eight rounds around here have been in the 60s,” he said. “This is a tough golf course. The course hasn’t been this tough in a couple years. The scoring reflects that.
“The greens are much firmer. The speed of them caught me by surprise a little bit today. My speed was a little clumsy, and it showed today on the greens.
“But generally I was quite happy the way I hit the ball. I hit a few squiffy ones and there’s room for improvement. But I’ll get back out there tomorrow.
“There’s lots of birdie opportunities on this course. I think that’s why I’ve always enjoyed it, why I’ve always felt comfortable on it. It offers you a lot of chances if you play decent.”
Johnson bogeyed the 18th for his 67 and one-stroke lead over Matt Kuchar (68) with Bubba Watson and Hunter Mahan tied for third after two under 70s.
Host Woods managed a 71 that began and ended with misses from short range on the slippery Sherwood greens. A bogey at the first and a par at the 18th sandwiched a pair of birdie fours at the fifth and 11th.
He had few complaints about his score after a round that was notable for the control he showed off the tee with his new driver.
Following the death of Nelson Mandela, it was his thoughts and memories of the late South African statesman that drew more interest than his golf.
“Well, it’s sad,” Woods said. “It’s sad for everyone who got a chance to not only meet him, but I’ve been influenced by him. I got a chance to meet him with my father back in ‘98. He invited us to his home, and it was one of the inspiring times I’ve ever had in my life. It’s a sad day for many people around the world.”
Having described many times how he felt “a presence” in the room before turning to see Mandela behind him on his private visit, Woods explained: “I got a chance to meet with him back in ‘98 with my father at his home and had a great lunch together.
“You’ve heard me tell the story many times. I’m not going to bore you with it again. But he certainly had an impact on my life and certainly my father, and I think that time frame in which when he came out, the country could have fallen apart. It could have gone a lot of different ways, and he led it to where it’s at now, and the world is going to miss him.”
Asked if he could imagine spending 27 years in prison and not having any hatred in his heart or wanting to get revenge for those who unjustly imprisoned him, Woods said: “Well, I don’t think any of us probably here could have survived that and come out as humble and as dignified as he did.
“And to lead an entire nation and to basically love the world when he came out, I think that’s a testament to his will and his spirit and who he was.”