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McDowell's game hits next level

Friday, April 01, 2011

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There are typically two directions a young pro can go after making a major breakthrough to win the U.S. Open.

Graeme McDowell has had difficulty at the Masters, missing the cut in two of his three appearances. He said he has been working on improving his short game. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

Drift back into relative obscurity (see Michael Campbell, Lucas Glover), or take it to the next level (i.e. Retief Goosen, Geoff Ogilvy).

Graeme McDowell -- the affable Northern Irishman who steadily held off a host of multiple-major winners at Pebble Beach -- found a new gear straight into the elite ranks.

"I think I was very aware of the pitfalls," he said. "I remember reading Michael Campbell's quote when he said that no one actually ever tells you how to get back down from the peak of Everest when you have climbed to the summit. A lot of people die on the way back down. I remember that kind of hitting home.

"We have seen great players come and go as far as one-time wonders when it comes to the major championships. I certainly didn't want to be one of those guys."

Becoming the first European golfer to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 didn't change McDowell. He's still pleasant and accessible, and he still believes life isn't worth living if you can't go out and enjoy a pint or two with friends.

But winning a major certainly elevated McDowell's game. He won two European Tour events in 2010, delivered the winning point as the anchor of the European Ryder Cup team and closed the biggest Sunday rally ever against host Tiger Woods in the Chevron World Challenge, draining two long putts on the 72nd hole and playoff to knock off the former No. 1 golfer.

"Nerves of steel," Ryder Cup teammate Ross Fisher said.

A former All-American at Alabama-Birmingham, McDowell had scattered four victories on the European Tour, including a pair in 2008 that earned him a spot on his first Ryder Cup team.

The signs of his pending arrival were visible the past two years. In six consecutive major starts from the 2008 British Open through the 2009 PGA, McDowell registered five finishes ranging from 10th to 19th. That steadiness served him well at Pebble Beach, when he maintained balance on Sunday alongside Dustin Johnson's quick meltdown while Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Woods failed to make a run on him.

He was invited back to UAB to show off his U.S. Open trophy at a basketball game -- "all of that kind of glitzy and glam stuff," he said -- but he preferred connecting with a new generation of golf players.

"I was more into hanging with the golf team for a couple of days and spend some time with them and practice with them and try to see if I can throw a bit of advice their way -- great bars that I used to drink in in Birmingham, important things like that," he said.

He doesn't take his continued success and status for granted.

"Just because you've achieved great things doesn't mean you are automatically going to achieve more," he said. "We have seen guys struggle in the past, and all I can take from 2010 is a lot of confidence and belief in my game and my ability and confidence that I'm on the right path.

"You have to keep the game in perspective and keep enjoying it really, and of course I'm trying to keep working hard. And now that I've got one major, I certainly want to taste some more of those."

The Masters has been the toughest major for McDowell. He's missed the cut twice and tied for 17th in 2009.

"(Augusta National is) one of those golf courses every time I go back, I feel like I see something new," he said. "It's just an amazing course. It's an amazing tournament. I love everything about it. It is a special, special place."

That said, it tests his game.

"There are certain shots for Augusta that I need to learn how to play," he admitted. "I'm not a great right-to-left shaper of my driver. It's not my favorite shot. And it asks you to hit it three or four times in the round, and I mean, you've really got to move it or you're in big trouble. And I'm working very hard on my short game. That's one of my main areas of work right now. It's definitely something I've got to polish up on for Augusta."

To address driving, McDowell is working on a driver that he can shape right-to-left on demand.

"Phil (Mickelson) carried two drivers when he won (in 2006) and I'm not ruling that out," he said.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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