'The Portrush Open will be special – but only if I qualify!'
Graeme McDowell has tended to walk away from the Masters disappointed with how his week has turned out. He loves the place, it’s his favourite course in the world and yet it’s, as he likes to say, ‘an unrequited love’ with only three made cuts in nine visits.
The past two years McDowell hasn’t made it to Augusta on account of a big dip in form – last year he was only eligible for the US Open thanks to his win at Pebble Beach in 2010. After the Honda Classic this year he was as low as 259th in the world, he’s been as high as No. 4.
Five years ago he was leading Europe off in the Ryder Cup singles against Jordan Spieth, and putting the finishing touches to a perfect week. Last September he was part of Thomas Bjorn’s backroom team.
In the interim there have been no big fall-outs, some soul-searching and he’s become a dad twice.
And now, as of a few weeks ago, he is a winner again on the PGA Tour after triumphing down in the Dominican Republic, the same week as a bulk of his pals were at the WGC-Match Play. It didn’t get him back to Augusta but it did book his place at Bethpage for next month’s PGA Championship.
There is though one blank week that the boy from Portrush is quite keen to fill in the coming months…
How did it feel to win again?
It’s been a long road the last couple years and I have been working very hard. The road has been a lot longer and a little bit more bumpy than I perhaps expected it to be, but the win was a big boost.
Obviously, an opposite event, best players in the world were not there, but still I felt like I went down to Puntacana with the right attitude. It really shakes that monkey off my back, a lot of trying to get my playing privileges back, which is back in the top 125. Things I never used to think about when I was a bit younger. The last couple years missing out on the top 125, it’s a real reality check. I’ve definitely played with a little too much pressure on my shoulders the last six or eight months.
Along with the two-year exemption what other doors will it now open?
I’ve already got my invite to the PGA Championship at Bethpage next month. Obviously I get to Kapalua in January also, but short-term, more importantly, I am able to play the schedule I want to play between now and the summer. Obviously a big goal is to play the Open Championship at Portrush, so setting a schedule up to where I have the best opportunity to do that and then beyond that, looking into the FedExCup Play-offs. I’ve never been to the Tour Championship.
How much is Portrush the big goal in the coming months?
It’s going to be a very special six weeks going back to Pebble for the US Open and then going to Portrush for The Open, but it’s not going to be very special if I’m not in the field.
I guess growing up there and always dreaming of seeing the Claret Jug in the trophy cabinets there and the photos from 1951, it’s always been a dream of mine for a very long time to a) have the Open Championship return to Portrush but also b) to be in the field and be competitive and have the chance to go and compete and try to win the Claret Jug in my hometown.
So, it goes without saying, it’s a massive goal. Bay Hill was one of the qualifying events for The Open and it’s amazing the attention it brought to me and just a little bit of extra pressure. So the win will really help lift a lot of the pressure off my shoulders and get myself a chance to lay out a schedule between now and the Open which will give me the best chance to be in that field.
That really is the only tournament that I want to play in the next six months that I’m not exempt for.
You started working with Karl Morris again a few weeks ago, what has he added to things?
My caddie and I decided to get Karl back on board again from the psychology side of things. I work with Brad McCabe here in the States and Brad has helped me a huge amount off the course, just dealing with life stuff really and how to manage and prioritise and become better off the course.
Karl’s always been so great to me on the course, with pre-shot routine stuff, he’s an ex-PGA pro himself and he’s always been really effective with me and the things we’ve been chatting about really is why my pre-shot routine has been getting a little sloppy, which was what I used to do really well when I was at my best.
And what’s changed on the greens where you had 15 straight one-putts on the Saturday?
We really zoned in on the putting stuff. Right before I took the putter head back, I used to have this great breath, which was a relaxation, sort of freeing the tension before I hit the putt. I just have become not as good at that. I sort of lost the why.
I wasn’t really sure why I used to do that and Karl and I talked about it and he told me a lot of studies have shown when you want to switch from that left brain, that kind of computing side of your brain, into the more natural athlete side of the brain and that really good deep breath that could flip that switch.
It kind of gave me the why again. I started working on it at Tampa and I could really feel the putter starting to heat up again and 15 one-putts in a row on was certainly something I never accomplished before and it started to get in my head a little bit coming in.
It’s pretty amazing to have 20 putts with no chip-ins. In his book, The Lost Art of Putting, he talks about that stuff in there and a lot of the content in that book are things him and I work together.
Was there a moment that you thought things were heading the wrong way for good?
I played the CJ Cup in Korea at the end of 2017 and I was working on some technique stuff and I was just driving the ball so badly. I was hitting it shorter that I’ve ever hit it. I’ve never been long but I’ve always been long enough to compete and, all of a sudden in 2017, I just started driving it nowhere. Playing with guys that I know that I’m competitive with, and they’re whipping it 20 by me.
I played with Tony Finau in the first round and he made me look silly off the tee. I remember thinking to myself, “Listen, if I’m going to continue to drive it like this, I don’t think I’m going to be able to compete at this level.” Simple as that.
From that week onwards I made some breakthroughs with the way my driver was set up. Some technique stuff and some speed stuff and you know I’m actually driving the ball, sort of 18 months later, I’m very competitive off the tee again.
And that was really the switch I suppose that helped me get that confidence. We all know how much of a power game it is nowadays and you got be driving well to compete, so that’s probably been the biggest difference maker.