PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Graeme McDowell was lured to the OHL Classic at Mayakoba by the prospect of a clean slate.
A fresh start, an opportunity to put a disastrous season behind him. A chance to rekindle his game and begin his charge back up the world rankings to the lofty perch he once occupied for so long.
Through two rounds in Mexico he appears to have found all of that, but make no mistake – there is still work to be done.
McDowell scorched El Camaleon on Friday, recording nine birdies en route to a 63, the lowest round of the week. At 12 under, he sits two shots clear of Si Woo Kim and appears in great position to capture his third PGA Tour win.
The easy demeanor and confident smile McDowell currently carries have been a rare sight in recent months. More than a year removed from his last top-10 finish, the Ulsterman has watched his world ranking slide from No. 15 to begin the year to No. 85 entering this week.
“I’ve had a spell here the last 18 months where making cuts has been hard, and getting into contention’s been difficult,” McDowell said.
Things bottomed out for McDowell at the PGA Championship, where a missed cut ended his season before the FedEx Cup Playoffs began. The ball-striking, he explained, had been showing signs of a turnaround since the Scottish Open in July, but he was never able to capitalize on scoring opportunities.
McDowell used the unexpected gap in his schedule to take a break from golf and take stock of the situation he had played his way into.
“About five weeks off I took after Whistling Straits, which was key for me,” McDowell said. “I needed to clear my head. I was under too much pressure. I was putting too much pressure on myself.”
After returning to action in Europe, McDowell is now off to a strong start in Mexico – but the start has not been the difficult part of the equation this year. Time and again, he has flashed his form of old, only to falter over the weekend.
McDowell opened with rounds of 67-65 this spring in Dubai, then failed to break 70 over the weekend. A similar script played out in Malaysia, where he finished T-36 despite an opening 66, and he was near the lead through three rounds of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational before closing with 73.
Even as recently as two weeks ago, when he was in the mix at the halfway point of the Turkish Airlines Open with a chance to play his way into the Race to Dubai, McDowell closed with rounds of 73-75 to fade from contention.
Amid a playing schedule that spans the globe, McDowell has only one sub-70 final-round score this year.
One good round, even two good rounds, have been achievable goals. Stringing four straight together, though, has proved difficult.
“The last few months, not staying in the present enough on the weekends, kind of getting a little excited and caring too much. Just kind of mistakes that I used to make 10 years ago when I was trying to learn how to win out here,” he said. “I’ve been going through kind of the processes of really getting there, messing it up a little bit, getting back there and playing a little better.”
Another opportunity for improvement awaits this weekend, where wet conditions will lead to more low scores. McDowell appears to have his game in order, combining a red-hot putter with vintage ball-striking. After tinkering with a new driver earlier in the week, he put his old driver back in his bag for the second round and missed only two fairways.
But scar tissue lingers from his recent miscues. McDowell asserts that this fortnight of fall golf, ending with next week’s RSM Classic, is an all-upside opportunity to get a head start on a new season.
But he also built in some less rosy rationale, just in case he is unable to buck his recent performance trends.
“This is not a last-chance saloon this weekend,” he said.
Beyond the mechanics of his swing, McDowell believes the missing ingredient of late has been his frame of mind. The confidence and positive reinforcement that inherently accompany appearances on the leaderboard and trips to the winner’s circle have simply been non-existent.
“Of course I would dearly love to be in the heat Sunday afternoon and have a chance to win here,” he said. “But like I say, I need to keep the attitude good this weekend, and I think I haven’t done that well the last few months.”
McDowell sought an opportunity for redemption this week in Mexico, and after two strong performances that’s exactly what he has created for himself.
But the toughest part of his journey back still lies ahead. It’s not assembling the various pieces – it’s keeping them together until the final putt drops.