AVONDALE, La. – Wearing the winner’s tartan jacket last Sunday night, Graeme McDowell appeared relieved – that he had survived a hellish day at Harbour Town, that he’s seeing signs of improvement and that his near three-year winless drought on the PGA Tour was over.
In 2010, seemingly half a career ago, G-Mac enjoyed a dream season. He won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He delivered the clinching point at the Ryder Cup. He took down Tiger Woods at his own tournament. They were three spectacular, legacy-defining moments, and they occurred in a six-month span. A market correction loomed.
The following year, he changed equipment and grappled internally with who he was as a golfer and where he was going. Finally, he emerged as the man you saw at Hilton Head – ebullient, engaged to be married, a proud restaurant owner and, yes, a two-time PGA Tour winner.
Yet in the wake of McDowell’s resurgence, it’s worth exploring: Why is a breakthrough season so rarely followed by another stellar campaign?
After all, no 2012 major champion has won this year, on any tour, anywhere. Neither have a few of the promising stars of last season, namely Rickie Fowler and Jason Dufner, the defending champion here at the Zurich Classic.
Indeed, the latter may be best remembered this year for doing nothing, in the form of Dufnering.
In that viral photo from late March, Dufner was snapped leaning against a wall in a children’s classroom, legs erect, arms stiff at his side, completely zoned out. The pose has become something of a cultural phenomenon – when Wednesday’s pro-am was suspended due to severe weather, Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Fowler each took turns posting #Dufnering photos on Twitter. It never gets old, thankfully.
Unfortunately for Dufner, 36, however, this season has been similarly expressionless. A few months ago, he fell into a bad habit (shutting his clubface at the top of the swing) after playing in windy conditions. As a result, the two-time winner in 2012 has had four top 25s, zero top 10s and no realistic chances to win, but thinks now that he has “turned the page.”
“I don’t feel like I’ve added any pressure on myself (this season),” he said. “I feel like I can win events, but I don’t feel like I should win events out here on a regular basis. You can play a lot of great golf and not win events.”
Justin Rose says players such as Dufner are simply evolving. The Englishman initiated his own self-evaluation after last year’s victory at Doral, where he took a massive career leap in capturing his first World Golf Championship. Currently, he has racked up 16 consecutive top-25 finishes worldwide – an incredible streak that dates to Labor Day – as he has ascended to No. 4 in the world rankings. But there have been no victories during that span, save for the unofficial eight-man cash-grab in Turkey.
“Life gets busier,” Rose, 32, said. “Sponsorship demands, media obligations, the phone starts ringing a bit more. A lot of that happens without you really realizing it’s changing. All of a sudden you realize you don’t have quite the same time to practice or don’t have enough time for family or time for yourself. That all has a very big effect.
“Expectations ramp up and that can lead to frustration if things aren’t going your way. We want to play our best golf and have breakout years and push ourselves to the next level, but that next level comes with its own set of challenges. You’ve got to be ready to face them.”
Watson confronts those challenges more publicly than most. Last year, just weeks before the Masters, he and wife Angie adopted their first son, Caleb, now 14 months. In the months following the green-jacket ceremony, Watson has smashed produce with his pink driver on late-night TV, appeared in a few Ping commercials, filmed another Golf Boys video and unveiled his hovercraft golf cart. In other words, life intervened.
But since winning the Masters, since becoming a breakout star, Watson has not won or finished in the top 10 in his last four majors.
Well, to hear Watson, quite a bit.
“The media, when you win a big event, they don’t attack you but they flock to you. You have a voice now, something to say. When you just top 10 each week, they don’t really flock to you. Sponsors want more of your time. Fans want more of your time. There are more charity things you can do, more events you can go to. High-up people are calling you, wanting to hang out. Golf is the last thing on everybody’s mind.”
Watson, 34, says he’s adjusting not just to celebrity life but to life itself. He hopes to start a foundation, to raise money for charity. He and Angie want to adopt another son, to enjoy their new house in Florida.
Soon, young Caleb will begin school, and Watson says it’s never too early to look at retirement options, or discuss insurance policies.
“There are a lot of things that distract you from golf,” he says. “But for me, golf is the easy part. Life is the harder thing. We all struggle with that at some point.”
Eventually, talent overcomes and they will win again, much like McDowell after a near three-year drought on Tour.
The hope next time, of course, is that the adjustment period isn’t so harsh.