THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Graeme McDowell has the weary, weathered look of a marathoner sweating his way into Mile 26. Or a prizefighter trying to avoid a standing eight count in the 12th round. Or a triathlete stumbling off his bike and starting to pound the pavement.
You get the picture. The dude is wiped out.
McDowell’s itinerary the past five weeks could’ve racked up enough frequent flier miles to buy a yacht. He started in Shanghai, then traveled to Shenzhen, Melbourne and Dubai before finally landing in Greater Los Angeles this week.
Forget jet lag. He doesn’t even know what day it is.
And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that with two rounds left in his 2012 season, McDowell is most looking forward to an upcoming 10-week vacation during which he insists his major goal is to “try and stay out of the bar as much as possible” before admitting that he’ll be “working on my 12-ounce curls.”
What is surprising is that despite such exhaustion, he currently owns a three-stroke lead entering the final 36 holes at the World Challenge following a second-round 6-under 66.
“I would love to compete and play well this weekend, really to kind of put a little icing on what's been a mediocre year,” said McDowell, who’s seen his world ranking drop from 13th at the beginning of the year to 24th right now. “Despite the fact that I feel like I've played some decent golf this year, I really don't have a lot to show for myself, and this would be a nice way to finish. Putting no pressure on myself, like I say.”
If there’s ever an event where pressure goes to die, it’s this one, which features an 18-man field and last-place payout of $120,000. If there’s ever a time when pressure isn’t a factor, it’s right before a 10-week vacation, which for McDowell gives this tourney a feel of last day of school before summer break.
Pint-sized jokes aside, he is looking forward to life after Sunday. For a professional golfer who plies his craft on two separate major tours, time away from the game is a precious commodity.
“These next 10 weeks are going to be very important to me to recharge and refocus and reset,” continued McDowell, who will next tee it up at the Northern Trust Open in February. “I know I'm in a good place, both on and off the course from where I'm going, and I feel very positive about next season, regardless of what happens this weekend – but it would be nice to play well.”
Mission accomplished so far.
On Friday, McDowell opened with three consecutive birdies then added four more on the back nine to open up an impressive lead. It may be the best golf he’s played in this long stretch, a string of appearances that includes finishes of T-8, T-11, T-42 and T-52.
It wouldn’t be the first time he used this tournament as a springboard to bigger and better things. Three years ago, McDowell’s name was pulled off the alternate list and added to the field. He finished in second place, which qualified him for the 2010 U.S. Open, a tournament he won in a delicious display of the domino effect. Just for good measure, he concluded a career year by winning here at season’s end, sinking lengthy putts on the final hole of regulation and first playoff hole to defeat Tiger Woods.
Since then, McDowell has played very good golf at times, but not good enough to again find the winner’s circle, something he’d like to change come Sunday.
“It's an 18-man field here and it's not like beating 156 guys, but there's 18 pretty good players here,” he said. “This event has always got good memories for me. Like I say, I have a very relaxed approach to this week generally. I've really enjoyed my last couple days of golf. But let's be honest, I love to win. Winning is difficult.”
It’s even more difficult coming off a whirlwind, worldwide tour and with one eye – if not both – already peeking ahead to a lengthy respite.
“It's been a long three years, four years for me, and I'm looking forward to some time off,” he said. “Ten weeks off will be interesting. We'll see.”
We’ll also see whether he can prepare for those upcoming 12-ounce curls by hoisting a trophy come Sunday afternoon.