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On His Way Back

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Graeme McDowell was fighting crazy thoughts in New Orleans two weeks ago.

A few short months after feeling invincible over shots, after winning the U.S. Open, after clinching The Ryder Cup, after beating Tiger Woods in a dramatic duel at the Chevron World Challenge, McDowell wondered if he had totally lost his mojo.

“You go through a spell like I've just gone through, where I just couldn't piece anything together, you have crazy thoughts, like `Will I ever win again? Will I ever be in contention again? Am I done? Am I finished?’ It's just the craziness of this sport,” McDowell said. “You never really know what’s around the corner.”

Just a couple weeks after McDowell felt himself nearing panic mode, what's around the corner looks different. Another prestigious title is moving within reach.

With a 3-under-par 69 Friday at The Players Championship, McDowell is in contention going into the weekend. At 8 under, he is two shots off the lead.

“Sports psychologists say, 'Don't wait for the golf ball to make you happy, try to go out there and be happy,'” McDowell said. “But the way my golf ball has been flying, it's been pretty tough to be happy. Sometimes you can be as positive and upbeat as you like on the golf course, but if you can't hit it, there's no amount of positive thinking that can get you around.”

The Players Championship
Graeme McDowell won four times worldwide in 2010. (Getty Images)
Two weeks ago, McDowell missed the cut at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. It was his third missed cut in his last four PGA Tour starts. He felt like he had lost his swing even though he still ranked No. 5 in the world.

“I probably hit rock bottom in New Orleans,” McDowell said. “I couldn’t hit the ball any worse . . . Fifteen handicap would have been about right.”

McDowell was miserable, and he let the people closest to him know exactly how miserable.

“Even grumpy, Graeme’s pretty good to be around, but, yes, everyone on the team’s been taking turns getting something in their ears,” Ken Comboy, McDowell’s caddie, said. “But on a day-to-day basis, we’re all pretty honest with each other. We’re all trying to do this the right way.”

McDowell, a good-natured 31-year-old from Northern Ireland, confessed he was a difficult member of his own team.

“Everything flashed through my mind,” McDowell said. “I sacked everyone, rehired them, probably sacked them again.

“When you're out there for five-and-a-half hours and having a rough day, it's amazing all the time you have to think about stuff. I've got a great team of people around me who keep me positive, and they've helped me try to stay patient. It's tough, though.”

Comboy likes what he’s seeing from his player this week. He's seeing form that made the world stand up and take notice.

“He’s starting to play the golf he played last year again,” Comboy said. “He’s controlling his ball flight, and he’s controlling his distance.”

McDowell said a combination of factors probably conspired to hurt his game. After all the success of a year ago, there were a new set of expectations, new responsibilities.

“You forget the reasons you’re there,” McDowell said. “You get to the point in your golf swing where it feels easy, so you take your eye off certain departments of your game.”

McDowell said his swing changed, he began shutting the face upon takeaway. He said he was stuck with a new ball flight that was starting left of his target and couldn’t fix it.

“When the ball starts left, I’m dead,” McDowell said

Though McDowell took to working as hard as he ever has this spring, he only became more frustrated. He said he was changing swing thoughts every day, changing them in the middle of a round.

“I didn't really know what I was trying to achieve to be honest with you,” McDowell said. “I've spent the last six weeks beating more golf balls maybe than I've ever hit, just searching, searching for something, and I've really not been able to find it.”

Enter Pete Cowen, McDowell’s long-time swing coach. Cowen, based in England, made the trip to McDowell’s Lake Nona home in Orlando, Fla., last week for a back-to-basics session. They fixed the shut face on the takeaway, improved his positions at the top of his swing, and he began flushing it again.

It was about this time last year that McDowell’s game kicked into another gear. He won the Wales Open the first week of June for his first victory of the season and won the U.S. Open two weeks later. He won four times around the world last year.

McDowell arrived at The Players this week with back-door top-10s at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and the Honda Classic but without feeling like he’s had a real chance to win.

“I told my caddie yesterday, 'I miss being in contention. I miss the pressure,’” McDowell said. “Let’s try and get ourselves in the mix.”

McDowell’s got himself there halfway through The Players.

“To be honest with you, I’m really going into the weekend with no expectations because I came here with a new swing,” McDowell said. “It’s a small variation of the old one. I was really here just trying to get confidence.”

His team can see the confidence flooding back.


Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMellGC