PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Graeme McDowell has seen this patch of coastline before.
It was in 2007 that McDowell first played the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, accepting a sponsor invitation to play in the inaugural edition. At 27 years old, he was without status on the PGA Tour and simply looking for a spark.
It didn’t come that week – he tied for 63rd – but things have gone well for the Ulsterman since then. That is, until this year.
Coming off his worst season in recent memory, McDowell now returns to Mayakoba, hoping to take a page out of Andy Dufresne’s playbook and discover some hope on a Mexican beach.
While it’s not exactly Zihuatenejo, Mayakoba does represent McDowell’s first PGA Tour start since the PGA Championship. A missed cut at Whistling Straits meant he missed the FedEx Cup Playoffs entirely, creating an unexpected offseason in the heart of the summer.
McDowell has now gone more than a year without a top-10 finish on Tour, and after starting the year at No. 15 in the world, his ranking has plummeted to No. 85.
Under normal circumstances, McDowell would spend the coming fortnight competing in the European Tour’s Final Series in China and Dubai. Instead, it’s Mexico and Georgia as he looks to get ahead in the FedEx Cup race after playing from behind all last season.
“I’ve got to put this year behind me and start moving forward,” McDowell said. “I’ve got to get some numbers under my belt, I’ve got to start playing a little bit. That was probably my main motivation.”
McDowell’s exemptions for winning the 2010 U.S. Open and 2013 RBC Heritage run out at the end of the season, meaning he plays without the luxury of long-term job security for the first time since his breakthrough win at Pebble Beach.
A resident of Florida, McDowell typically doesn’t start his domestic schedule until the Honda Classic in March. But that plan didn’t pan out last season, and he opted to scrap it when faced with the realization that he is not yet qualified for the WGC-Cadillac Championship, WGC-Cadillac Match Play or the Masters.
“I need to play more golf courses where I feel like if I play well, I will contend,” he said. “Events like Mayakoba, McGladrey and into the new year, L.A., Honda, Tampa, stuff like that. That’s what got me to the position to win a major championship, and that’s where I’ve got to go back to basics and start playing more golf, competing and winning tournaments again and get my confidence back.”
Like McDowell, Keegan Bradley was a surprise addition this week. Bradley credited his appearance to both the beauty of this week’s venue and the persuasiveness of some of his peers, but he too is motivated to erase the taste of a disappointing season.
While Bradley advanced to the BMW Championship, he notched only one top-10 finish after the Masters. He failed to make the Presidents Cup squad, instead watching the U.S. victory from home after making a team event the previous three straight years.
Bradley attributed his lack of results to “a lot of weird stuff,” but blamed much of his struggles on putting. With the anchoring ban looming, Bradley has spent this year developing a new stroke on the greens.
There is still work to be done, however, as Bradley’s Tour rank in strokes gained putting fell from 47th during the 2013-14, his final season of anchoring, to 126th this past season.
“I’ve got to give myself a good amount of time with this putter switch, because it’s a pretty drastic change for me,” Bradley said. “I’m feeling better and better with it, it’s just a matter of making the putts now obviously. But if you put a belly putter in somebody’s hands that has never used it, it would take an adjustment as well. So it’s an adjustment.”
While McDowell is making his first start of the new campaign, Bradley already has two tournaments under his belt – albeit with underwhelming results. He missed the cut in Las Vegas and finished T-47 among the 78-man field in Malaysia.
But Bradley continues to play the numbers game, believing that more starts will yield more chances to contend and, ultimately, a spot in the winner’s circle.
It’s that last part that has proved especially tricky for Bradley, who earned three wins including a major during his first two full years on Tour. But the last three seasons have yielded nothing in the hardware department, as Bradley’s last win remains the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Championship.
“I’m sick of not winning,” he said. “If anything, it’s holding me back even more because I want to win so bad. I’m trying to just let it happen, but if I do win, I think it’s going to be a big help for me. Just, I can take a deep breath almost, and let it happen a little more.”
Despite recent results, Bradley believes that he has the game to win any week, including this one. Such is the long-term confidence that can be gained from hoisting a major trophy.
McDowell knows that high as well, and he hopes that the path to rediscovering it starts this week on a coastal layout he has walked before.
“I certainly wouldn’t compare it to where I am right now, but I’m probably in a similar situation eight years on if you like, with a major championship under my belt and multiple tournament wins around the world,” he said. “But there’s no doubt that I’m in a slightly rebuilding, back-to-basics type mode, and this could signal the start of the beginning of something again.”