The Open: Chastened Graeme McDowell opts for quieter confidence
IT IS easy to recall Graeme McDowell’s exuberance ahead of the Open at Royal St George’s last year. Giddy as a schoolboy, he was talking himself into contention before a ball had been hit in anger. You couldn’t listen to him without believing in his chances of winning a second major, a faith that, of course, went unrewarded. By the time his countryman, Darren Clarke, came strolling up the 18th fairway on Sunday evening, McDowell was back home in Northern Ireland, watching on television and tweeting cheekily about Clarke being the first Ulsterman to win a major “in almost four weeks!”
This time, we’re seeing a slightly different McDowell. He’s just as insightful about the game and every bit as fascinating to talk to, but he’s been on a bit of a journey this past while, a dizzying spin that saw him lose his game badly only to suddenly find it again at the US Open last month, where he finished tied for second.
“It’s important to keep expectation levels in check,” he says on the eve of a championship that will, for him, begin at 9.31am in the company of Dustin Johnson and Hiroyuki Fujita of Japan. “Take last year. I was waxing lyrical about what I was going to do and I was playing beautifully. Yet within three holes on [the] Thursday my head was off. So you have to stay patient and realise that no matter how good you feel going into the tournament, it’s how you react to what the course throws at you that counts.
“You are going to get into bunkers [and] rough, but you have to keep the attitude right. That’s what I am going to try and do and show that I can get out of problems. No matter how good your gameplan is, you are not going to execute every shot properly and you will find a few fairway traps. You’d be as well beating a five-iron into a fence right now if you are going to react when it happens because you just have to get it out and start again.”
The technical is one thing, but the mental side of the game is an area he’s been thinking a lot about, particularly the mental side of playing in this championship and on this golf course where the bunkers and the rough amount to the ultimate head-wreck for those wayward enough to find the danger. McDowell talks about how he used to play chess. In his final year at school he joined a chess club because he heard there were some decent-looking girls there. He wasn’t any good but he compares the psychology of the board game to the challenge of this golf course.
“It’s a chess game. How many bunkers, 206? I read a tweet that said there’s a bunker for every bone in your body. That might be incorrect, but you have to position your tee shot to get into the right spot for your second. I enjoy the chess side of golf. I love the tough tests and you can’t force the issue or it will beat you up. It’s my favourite Open course, Lytham. St Andrews, for example, lets guys blow it over trouble. Get the driver out, hit it as hard as you can and make sure you hit it left. It’s not like that here. It tests your every yardage here. I’ve got to go and let it happen, if it doesn’t, no biggie.”
No biggie? That’s the mind game at play. No pressure, G-Mac? But, of course, there’s pressure. This is a man who has won a US Open and came close to winning a second one on brutally difficult tracks. He’s in form and he loves this golf course. The vibes out there are good. Sure, his Open record is a mystery to him. Eight championships, three missed cuts and a best finish of 11th at St Andrews seven years ago. That said, he knows he’s good enough to win here.
“I’m a lot more under-the-radar these days and it’s a lot of fun to not have to talk everything through like I had to after winning the US Open. I’m feeling quietly confident about my game, although my expectations are in check. I took a lot of confidence from the US Open. It fuelled my fire to get back in contention at the majors. Careers are defined by the major championships.”
He has one, but there’s another in him, no question. Let the chess game begin.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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