McDowell adds another piece to the puzzle

Graeme McDowell launches one down the 18th at Harbour Town Golf Links on Sunday. Winning, as Tiger Woods reminded us in that recent commercial, takes care of everything. In that regard, Graeme McDowell is no different to the world number one.

While 2012 was a good year for the Ulsterman in so many ways, his relief at claiming Woods’ World Challenge at Sherwood last December was palpable as it underlined the psychological importance of getting over the line in a game where you’re almost always a loser.

Claiming the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town in a play-off on Sunday was huge for the 33-year old in so many ways. Not only did he take care of two of his season’s ambitions in one go - a PGA Tour victory and a big move towards a re-establishing himself in the world’s Top-5 with a 10 place jump to eighth - he reinforced his belief that he’s on the right track mentally, physically and emotionally.

Having claimed the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell’s career has been all about proving that major win was no one-hit wonder. It’s a quest that goes on despite his stellar play since that memorable June evening on the Monterey Peninsula.

Graeme McDowell sports the winner’s plaid jacket.Getting into the final group at the US Open and The Open last year only to come away empty-handed hurt the affable Portrush man. Gaining some semblance of revenge over Webb Simpson for that runner-up finish in the US Open at Olympic Club last year will not have registered with him. What will have given him confidence was the way he drove the ball in the final round on Sunday night. After all, it was driving that undid him in the US Open last year.

A player with no major weaknesses in his game, McDowell has added a smidgen of length this season and also worked hard to improve his short game - especially his bunker play, his putting and his hybrids.

But it’s the short game that got the most work, as he explained to the PGA Tour’s Brian Wacker:

Last year, McDowell ranked 174th on the PGA TOUR in scrambling. This year, he’s first. The improvement, in part, comes from knowing what he does best, something McDowell has always excelled at — even if he did toy with the idea of trying to add 15 to 20 yards to his game. “In the offseason I thought about longer shafts and swinging out of my shoes and getting fitter and realized I was probably going to take away from my strengths,” he said. “My iron play, my wedge play, my short game, my putting. It was a crash course I decided against. I’m accepting my game more and I’m accepting that I can’t move it 300 yards down the fairway.”

Those are the weapons that will bring him major number two but he admitted on Sunday night that getting some tangible feedback on those improvements means more than anything.

“To win Tiger’s event end of last year, unofficial, small field, blah, blah, I took a lot of confidence from that, also, because I had a solid season last year and got nothing from it,” said McDowell, who was fully aware than he had never won an event in an odd-numbered year until Sunday.

“My best weeks were often my most disappointing weeks; finish fifth at the Open from the last group. Didn’t get a lot out of my year last year in many ways, but knew in the bottom of my heart that my game was getting better and better all the time.

“And really being optimistic about the start to this season, you know, some good golf, some solid stuff, really put myself in the heat a couple of times.

“We’ll all sit here and say you can’t measure yourself by wins. It’s not about the wins, it’s about the upper curve and getting better and all these things. What it really boils down to it, wins are very, very important to us personally. And you take a huge amount of confidence and belief and momentum from those.

McDowell and his faithful bagman Ken Comboy.“So this is probably one of the more special ones in my career because it feels right. It feels good. My first real win on this side of the pond as a PGA Tour player. I feel this is building blocks for something good this year and beyond. I’m very excited about this.”

McDowell has never been in such a good place, either professionally or privately. Engaged to be married to fiancée Kristin Stape later this year, he has a solid on-course partner in the respected Mancunian caddie Ken Comboy, a reliable management team at Horizon and a raft of blue chip sponsors, including RBC.

Having recently decided to become a partner in a restaurant business near his Orlando base at Lake Nona, he kept his promise of a free bar at ‘Nona Blue’ on Sunday night.

McDowell’s greatest asset, apart from charming personality and his ability to hit fairways, is his strength between the ears and his courage. He’s also smart enough to avoid obsessive behaviour that drives others to distraction. He’s hard with a soft-centre, which makes him one of the most popular players in the game.

“You know, I think talking about personalities and demeanors of a guy like Jerry Kelly, the way you conduct yourself on the golf course,” McDowell said of his final round playing partner. “The way take the pressure off yourself, I suppose, by looking at the bigger picture and realizing that it’s not life or death; it’s just golf. It’s just sport.

“And, yes, it hurts and, yes, you’re nervous and it’s disappointing. There’s more disappointments in this game than there are successes. That’s why you’ve got to enjoy nights like tonight because this game kicks you more often than it gives you a pat on the back.

“It doesn’t pay debts, this game. If you feel like you deserve anything, this game certainly doesn’t give it back to you. And I feel like I have learned to understand, to keep an open mind, to kind of accept what this game throws at me and learn from my tough experiences and just try and put that back into the greater improvement that I’m on.

Graeme McDowell poses with the organisers and volunteers.“And I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this sport. It still continues to disappointment me and frustrate me, but I feel like I’ve got better and better at kind of accepting and going out there today and being patient and understanding what it takes to win more.

“And I want to win more often. I’ll learn from today and hopefully try and put that back in my game, and make winning more of a habit. It’s a great habit to get into. There are so many great players in the world right now it’s very difficult. It’s hard to do and you’ve got to savor them.”

McDowell joined a long list of major winners to triumph in the breeze at Harbour Town Golf Links or the Sea Pines Resort at Hilton Head: Jim Furyk (2010), Davis Love (2003, 1998, 1992, 1991, 1987), Justin Leonard (2002), Stewart Cink (2000), Nick Price (1997), Bob Tway (1995), Hale Irwin (1994, 1973, 1971), Payne Stewart (1990, 1989), Greg Norman (1988), Fuzzy Zoeller (1986, 1983), Bernhard Langer (1985), Nick Faldo (1984), Tom Watson (1982, 1979), Bill Rogers (1981), Hubert Green (1978, 1976), Jack Nicklaus (1975), Johnny Miller (1974, 1972), Bob Goalby (1971) and Arnold Palmer (1969).

Rogers and Goalby won just one major and Cink, Furyk and Leonard are still looking for number two. McDowell joins them now in that small group.

Adding to his major championship haul at Merion, Muirfield or Oak Hill later this summer is next on his list of goals.

“It’s amazing kind of how things happen,” he said. “I miss a cut by one last week and am frustrated and disappointed. And perhaps if I make the cut last week and grind a 30th or 40th position out, do I sit here with this beautiful jacket on? It’s kind of amazing how things happen.

“I wouldn’t swap the way it’s happened. I wouldn’t swap this win for a top 10 last week. Of course I’d swap it for a green jacket, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything less than the win last week. In many ways the missed cut was the best thing that happened for this week. So it’s amazing how things happen.”