ORLANDO, Fla. – Graeme McDowell is in a better place than he was a year ago, starting with a 17-shot improvement at Bay Hill.
Tiger Woods, who teed off in the afternoon, ran off four straight birdies and shot 32 on the front nine to get in the mix.
McDowell faced an impossible encore at this time a year ago. He was the U.S. Open champion, the Ryder Cup hero in Wales, and he finished his dream season with a record comeback against Woods.
He knew something was wrong when he opened with an 80 at Bay Hill and missed the cut.
“That 80 was a wake-up call, but I didn’t wake up for another four months or so,” McDowell said. “It was more of the panic button. It was a pretty awful four or five months for me.
“But like I say, I feel like you learn more from those types of experiences than you do from shooting 63 at Bay Hill. There’s not much to learn out there except that if you play great and hole some putts, you can go low.”
That’s just what he did.
Dufner set the early pace until he tried to reach the par-5 sixth green with a 3-wood, misjudged the wind and went into the water. He had to scramble for a bogey, though he still managed a 69.
Dufner and McDowell were at 9-under 135, and then it was a matter of seeing if that were good enough for the lead.
McDowell opened with a 72 and felt he had played well, except for making the putts. He made up for that on another warm day at Bay Hill. After a pair of tap-in birdies, he rolled in a 25-foot putt on the seventh and a 30-foot birdie putt on the eighth. He saved his best golf for the end of the round, with an approach to 8 feet for eagle on the 16th and another fine approach over the water to 10 feet on the last.
“Shooting 63 on a golf course like this is always a lot of fun,” McDowell said. “It’s a golf course that I feel like I can get it around.”
McDowell shot a 66 in the final round the first time he played Bay Hill, which turned out to be enough to get him into the Masters for the first time. Even though he has missed the cut the last two years, he still has some good memories.
He also has a lot of work in front him.
Dufner has looked solid through the Florida swing. If the lead holds, it would be the fifth time in 14 rounds in Florida that he has been atop the leaderboard – yet never on a Sunday. Dufner is still looking for his first PGA Tour win.
“The biggest thing is I’m just really comfortable with where my game is at right now,” Dufner said. I think any given day, I can go out and shoot 5 or 6 under, do it pretty comfortably. If the putter were to get hot, I feel like I could shoot some lower scores.
“There has not been a lot of stressful situations that last two or three weeks.”
“If you were swinging well, you could score out there,” Garcia said.
For McDowell, it was a case of managing his expectations, and after a year like 2010, that was difficult. Suddenly, he was among the top 10 players in the world and felt he was supposed to perform at his best on every shot, at every tournament.
He recalled reading a book by sports psychologist Bob Rotella, in which a U.S. Women’s Open champion started judging every shot by her status as a major champion.
“Your expectation levels crank up and your patience levels crank down, and you have to balance those out,” he said. “I didn’t accept my mistakes last year. I didn’t accept hitting bag shots. It’s all in the 6 inches between the ears. It’s a game played in the head, for sure.”
Now, he goes into the first major of the year in a better place.
McDowell has decided not to go to Augusta National until the week of the Masters. He is playing Bay Hill and the Houston Open, and it’s his plan this year to play the week before every major to see what kind of competitive shape he’s in.
When he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he took the week off the week before. Then again, he was coming off a win at the Wales Open, “so I had a little bit of partying to do and I needed a week off to do that.”
“I knew my game was there,” he said. “I’m the type of animal who needs to know where I’m at, and putting a card in my pocket is the only way I can do that.”
And if he were to win Bay Hill? Would he need time to celebrate?
“Yeah, but I can do that quickly on Sunday night,” said McDowell, who lives at Lake Nona. “My local pub is only 20 minutes away.”