BETHESDA, Md. – Even an affable, easygoing guy like Graeme McDowell can succumb to the burden that comes with being a first-time U.S. Open champion.
The pride of Portrush, Northern Ireland, basked in a special 2010 that included the Father’s Day win at Pebble Beach, three other tournament wins and The Ryder Cup. Quite the talker, he’s happily relived it all many times in his mind – and over and over and over with anyone who asked.
Now, after a shaky start to 2011, he’s ready to move on.
“You know, it’s bizarre,” McDowell said Tuesday as he prepares to defend his title at Congressional Country Club, “because if anything I feel like the glare is off me this week. I feel like I’ve done it. The last three or four months have been difficult.
“I’ve spent the last just under 12 months looking back at Pebble. I spent the last six months reflecting on 2010. And I mean, somehow having arrived here this week, I feel like I’ve done it now. My U.S. Open trophy is back here with the USGA. I’ve handed it back and I’m ready to sort of get on with the rest of my career.”
It’s not as if McDowell has been a walking disaster on the course. In fact, it would have been asking a lot to carry his momentum into the new calendar year without some sort of letup. But he’s missed the cut in four of his last eight tournaments, lost a one-shot lead at The Players Championship by closing with 79 and shot a third-round 81 at the Wales Open this month.
“My focus has been way too much on winning,” McDowell said. “My expectation level, I mean, I’m going out there with the only goal of winning the golf tournament. That’s probably a little bit unrealistic because you can’t really be setting your goals that high. So the last round of The Players when it started to get away from me, it wasn’t like I threw the towel in, but subconsciously I felt the win getting away from me and I really lost that drive. I’ve lost that drive to grind the top 10s and the top 5s out, the things that drive consistency.
“The reason why Luke Donald has not been a prolific winner but he’s just a phenomenal golfer and he’s one of the best players in the world is because of that, because he can grind out those top 5s, he can grind out the top 10s when he’s maybe not in a position to win the golf tournament. … I’ve really got to reset my goals and realize that consistent golf is what it’s all about, and you don’t have to win every week to be a top player.”
Asked if he would have done anything differently during a whirlwind 12 months as the first U.S. Open champion from Europe in 40 years, McDowell paused.
“Probably not. You live and learn,” he said. “I mean, I’ve tried to be a player who has no regrets about things, really. Perhaps I would have come into the 2011 season and tried to do a little less off the golf course and really tried to focus back in my golf game.
“But it’s such a busy end to 2010 that 2011 seemed to just be there all of a sudden on my doorstep, and I was in Hawaii and in the Middle East, and those four weeks that came right after the Middle East, there’s no doubt I wasn’t the same guy. I wasn’t swinging it the same way, I wasn’t feeling the same way. Sometimes a run of momentum and adrenaline sort of has to hit a brick wall, and I guess I hit my brick wall. I’ve been trying to get over that wall ever since.”
McDowell said he had an uneventful final week as the titleholder, hanging out in Portrush and having dinner with friends at his favorite restaurant. He then spent an intense weekend in Florida working with coach Pete Cowan.
“I really needed sort of that kind of week to relax and put the feet up for three or four days and then getting the game beat into shape for this coming week, so I’m feeling good,” he said. “I have to say I felt really good on the golf course yesterday and I feel mentally very fresh and ready to go this week.
“I think that weight I talked about will hopefully be lifted off my shoulders this week. I already feel like part of it’s been lifted off, so that’s great. Hopefully, I can continue to feel the way I’m feeling into the weekend.”