SHANGHAI – Graeme McDowell packed a career of memories into one season, from his U.S. Open title at Pebble Beach to winning the match that gave Europe victory in the Ryder Cup. The Northern Irishman knew an encore was going to be tough.
He just wasn’t expecting this.
After a year in which just about everything has gone wrong, McDowell might have hit rock bottom last week at Valderrama in Spain when he couldn’t break 80 on the weekend – rounds of 81 and 82 – and finished in last place, 31 shots off the lead.
“We are pretty good at beating ourselves up,” McDowell said Thursday after making seven birdies in a roller-coaster round of 69 that left him four shots off the lead in the HSBC Champions. “We are all very good at punching ourselves when we are down. That’s the game. We love it and we hate. It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship, and last year was certainly a love relationship.”
He called last weekend one of the most embarrassing weekends of his career, even conceding that he quit on himself.
“I threw the towel in a little bit the last 27 holes, and it was embarrassing for me,” he said. “I had a long time to think about it coming over here. In the back of my mind, my game is not that far away.”
Encouragement came Tuesday at Sheshan International, when he worked with swing coach Pete Cowen for hours, placing shafts at different angles in the ground to groove his swing and try to find some control over the ball. They spoke Monday night, mapped out a plan and got to work the next day.
For most of the opening round, it appeared to be working.
McDowell ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch early in his round and was atop the leaderboard, a strange place for him to be this year. And just like that, he was gone. On the par-3 17th, he tried to hit 5-wood and shoved it straight right and into the bushes, leading to a triple bogey. Two holes later, he made another bogey and was back to even for the day.
Instead of giving up, McDowell fought back this time. He birdied three of the next four holes, settled down to a string of pars and finished with a round that gave him at least mild encouragement.
“Very happy with the way I battled back,” McDowell said. “Seven birdies on this golf course, pretty happy with that.”
That might be the best news of all for him, because the U.S. Open champion hasn’t been very happy of late. The frustration has been evident, even the few times he has been in contention this year. McDowell chalks it up to wanting too much, especially after a year in which he just about had it all.
“I’ve been angrier this year with myself because I want it too much,” he said. “We are all guilty of wanting it too badly sometimes. This game has beat me up this year, there’s no doubt about it. I’m trying to get back to believing in myself and enjoying myself a little bit. But it’s hard, because you’re trying to prove things and you’re trying to emulate last year.”