PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Given a second chance to win the OHL Classic, Graeme McDowell took dead aim and did not falter.
Describing his final approach as one of the best 5-irons he has ever hit, McDowell carved a shot from 215 yards to within 3 feet on the first playoff hole. The subsequent putt gave him a victory over Russell Knox and Jason Bohn, his first PGA Tour win in nearly three years and a much-needed highlight to end what has been an otherwise disastrous year inside the ropes.
McDowell entered this week at No. 85 in the world rankings, 70 spots below where he stood in January. His exempt status that dates back to his win at the 2010 U.S. Open was set to expire at the end of this season, and he was facing the prospect of missing the Masters for the first time since 2008.
Thanks to one final birdie, McDowell can now book trips to Kapalua and Augusta National next year, and his PGA Tour credential is good until 2018.
McDowell said his focus shifted this year to his wife and 1-year-old daughter, a welcome change but one that admittedly took a toll on his game. Without a win since the 2013 RBC Heritage, the 36-year-old found himself in the midst of a candid self-examination.
“There were multiple times during the year where I was losing belief in myself, where you’re asking yourself questions like, ‘Am I good enough anymore? Am I finished with this game? Do I have long left?’ Questions like that,” McDowell said. “When you’re out there for five and a half hours on the golf course and not playing well, these are the types of questions you ask yourself.
“I think that’s why golf is the ultimate mental sport, because you have all the time in the world to ask yourself all the crazy questions in the world.”
Those questions were all answered emphatically on Monday in Mexico, where McDowell began the final-round re-start tied for the lead with five holes to go. After a three-putt bogey on No. 16, he faced an 8-footer for par on No. 18 to remain within a shot of Knox.
The putt was center-cut the whole way.
“I thought if I had any threat of a chance, I had to make that putt,” he said.
McDowell’s watershed would not have been possible were it not for a reprieve from Knox, who bogeyed the final hole to forfeit his one-shot advantage. Eyeing back-to-back PGA Tour wins, Knox pulled his final drive into a fairway bunker and missed a 12-foot par save that would have won the tournament.
“It was unfortunate to hit a bad drive, since ultimately it cost me the tournament,” Knox said. “Because I didn’t, I don’t deserve it.”
That opened the door for McDowell, whose winning approach was keyed by advice from two fronts. First, caddie Ken Comboy talked McDowell into hitting a 5-iron, whereas his player favored a 6-iron because of adrenaline.
The second source was a bit more unexpected: Greg Norman, who sent McDowell a few swing tips via text following the third round. The Ulsterman put the advice into use Sunday, and added that he relied on it when hitting the shot that ultimately won him the tournament.
“He reminded me of some stuff,” McDowell said. “Obviously he’s one of my big heroes, both on and off the golf course, and that was nice to get a little positive reinforcement from the Shark.”
McDowell has shown signs of his old form throughout the year, but he has struggled to string four rounds together and suffered from what he described as “Sunday afternoon letdowns” at several recent events. But there was no letdown this time, as McDowell flashed the same determined look that earned him a major championship at Pebble Beach and has helped steer the Europeans to multiple Ryder Cup wins since.
McDowell missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs entirely last season, and while he was a surprise entry into the field this week, he explained that it was part of a revised plan of attack after traditionally beginning his season with the Florida swing.
“I basically lost my card this year. Thankfully, I had another year of exemption, but I couldn’t be in this position this time next year regardless,” he said. “Being at Mayakoba was a part of re-prioritizing and a re-focus.”
What he originally hoped would be a chance to earn a few extra FedEx Cup points turned into something much more meaningful. McDowell is back in the winner’s circle, back in some of the game’s elite events and trending back toward the place in the world rankings where he feels he belongs.
“There’s no doubt I doubted myself many times this year, but the last few months has been much more where I want to be,” he said. “This is big for me. I dreamed of this day coming again sometime, maybe I thought it would not be quite as soon as this. And I said to myself that I was really going to appreciate it, and I do appreciate it. This feels really nice.”