McDowell turns scrambling into an art form as he claims Heritage Classic success
Disappointment of missed Augusta cut banished at Hilton Head
Graeme McDowell puts on his new plaid jacket after winning the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Photograph: Stephen Morton/AP
Who ever would have thought it? Graeme McDowell aka “The Scrambler”. For sure, we’d known he was a grinder, a player who stuck to his task with all the tenaciousness of a terrier, as he proved in his breakthrough Major win in the 2010 US Open. Yet, in claiming the Heritage Classic at Hilton Head on the US Tour, the Ulsterman gave a master-class in the short game as a demonstration of his evolvement in that area.
A year ago, he was ranked 174th in scrambling on the US Tour. This season, G-Mac is number one. “I’ve been working my ass off since September of 2011 to get over the US Open hangover . . . this has been a work-in-progress for two years,” said McDowell, who bounced back from a missed cut at the US Masters to claim his second PGA Tour title.
He jumped from 18th to eighth in the world rankings as a consequence of the play-off win over Webb Simpson.
The kid who, back in 2005 on his debut at Augusta, spent the first two days of the US Masters marvelling at the short game wizardry of Ben Crenshaw and had the audacity to pick the master’s brains, has matured into a player with his own tricks up his sleeves.
On 19 of the 24 occasions in which he missed the greens in regulation at Hilton Head, he managed to get up and down: a 79 per cent strike-rate, the best of anyone in the field.
“It’s amazing how things happen. I miss a cut by one (at Augusta) and am frustrated and disappointed. And perhaps if I make the cut and grind out a 30th or 40th position, do I (win in the Heritage?) . . . I wouldn’t swap the way it’s happened.
“I wouldn’t swap this win for a top-10 in (the Masters). Of course, I’d swap it for a green jacket, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything less than the win. In many ways, the missed cut was the best thing that happened.”
McDowell has grafted hard to win again on tour. Even though he took victory in the Tiger Woods-hosted World Challenge at the tail-end of last season, an unofficial event that is not on the PGA Tour, it gave him confidence to revisit the winner’s circle again.
“In the off season, I thought about (playing with) longer shafts and swinging out of my shoes and getting fitter and realised I was probably going to take away from my strengths. My iron play. My wedge play. My short game. My putting . . . I decided against (changes). I’m accepting my game more and I’m accepting that I can’t move it 300 yards down the fairway.”
McDowell’s average driving distance on the US circuit of 277 yards ranks him a modest 152nd, but he makes up for it in other departments: he is eighth in driving accuracy, ninth in putting and fifth in scoring average.
Before arriving in Hilton Head for the Heritage – where he was serving in a new capacity as a corporate ambassador for tournament sponsors RBC – McDowell had shown very decent form: a quarter-finalist in the Accenture Matchplay; a top-10 in the Honda Classic, a third-placed finish in the WGC-Cadillac.
All good, all positive. But, for professionals, it is all about winning.
As McDowell conceded after his win on Sunday, “It’s (my) first real win in three years . . . to win Tiger’s event at the 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.
“My best weeks (in 2012) were often my most disappointing,” he added, of a runner-up finish to Simpson in the US Open and then going out in the final pairing of the British Open and falling to fifth.
“I 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.”
McDowell’s first tour win since his 2010 US Open sets him up for what promises to be a busy summer, with next month’s Players Championship at Sawgrass followed by a return to Europe for the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth – where all 12 members of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup team will be in action – and, then, a build-up to the US Open at Merion in June.
“We’ll all say you can’t measure yourself by wins, (that) it’s not about the wins, (that) it’s about the upper curve and getting better and all these things. What it really boils down to, wins are very, very important to us personally.
“You take a huge amount of confidence and belief and momentum from those . . . I feel this is building blocks for something good this year and beyond.
“I’m very excited . . . and I want to win more often. I’ll hopefully try and put that back in my game, and make winning more of a habit. It’s a great habit to get into.”
Whereas McDowell takes a break from this week’s tour stop in New Orleans, Shane Lowry takes up a sponsor’s invitation to play in the Zurich Classic, where an invitation has also been extended to Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan.
There are four Irish players competing in the Ballantine’s Championship, the European Tour co-sanctioned event in South Korea this week: Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane, Paul McGinley and Gareth Maybin.