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Exceeded Expectations

NAPLES, Fla. – Is there any more fearsome figure in golf right now than Graeme McDowell over a putt that really matters?

Even his colleagues are marveling at how McDowell has turned his flat stick into a magic wand.

Dustin Johnson sought out McDowell’s Odyssey White Hot #7 Wednesday at the Shark Shootout in hopes that by touching it he would absorb some of the enchantment it possesses.

“Trying to get some of his mojo,” Johnson said.

McDowell’s making putts this season like the second coming of Bobby Locke. He beat Tiger Woods with that 20-footer for birdie on the final hole of regulation Sunday at the Chevron World Challenge and then with another 20-footer for birdie on the first hole of their playoff. He beat Hunter Mahan with a dramatic 20-foot birdie putt to help Europe win the Ryder Cup in October. And though no single putt distinguished McDowell’s U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach last June, he won his first major championship holing nerve-racking par putts throughout his Sunday finish.

“He’s putting probably better than anybody else in the world right now,” Ian Poulter said.

McDowell, a native of Northern Ireland, says he has turned himself into a better putter, because he wasn’t born with the gift. In fact, when he arrived to play at the University of Alabama-Birmingham more than a decade ago, putting wasn’t a strength.

“I used to give my coach a heart attack, because I wasn’t a very good fast-greens putter,” McDowell said. “I guess that comes growing up on slow links greens in Ireland.”

While Pete Cowen is McDowell’s swing coach, McDowell says his best development as a putter came with the help of Clive Tucker, who guided England’s David Howell into the top 10 in the world rankings back in 2006.

“David was probably the best putter in the world at the time,” McDowell said.

Tucker helped improve McDowell’s technique.

“I’ve always been a sort of streaky good putter,” McDowell said. “But I’ve worked very hard on it the last three or four years. I’ve become more mechanically correct as far as my setup. I used to be more of a feel putter. I would just kind of stand to the ball how I felt, but, with hard work, I’ve gotten better and better and better. I’ve become more consistent.”

McDowell might be making highlights and headlines holing those clutch 20-foot birdie putts, but he believes his strength is his consistent ability to make 6- and 8-footers.

“I’m very good holing out,” said McDowell, who describes his putting stroke as inside to open. “It gives the rest of your game a chance.”

McDowell’s loyal to his Odyssey White Hot #7 putter. It’s a heel-toe balanced putter.

“I’ve used a White Hot with the insert pretty much since college,” he said.

Ask Poulter, and he’ll tell you McDowell makes more big putts now because he’s giving himself more chances. In fact, McDowell’s third on the European Tour this season in hitting greens in regulation (75.7 percent). He was 128th in GIR (63 percent) four seasons ago but has made steady progress every year since.

“Graeme’s putting it all together,” Poulter said.

McDowell, 31, named with Martin Kaymer this week as the European Tour Players of the Year, is riding a giant wave of confidence. His Chevron victory, his fourth worldwide this year, moved him up four spots to No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“It’s been an incredible season,” McDowell said as he prepares to finish off the year in this week’s Shark Shootout, a two-man team event he’s playing with fellow countryman Darren Clarke. “I’m very proud of myself, the way I’ve applied myself, especially the last six weeks, especially after the Ryder Cup. It would have been very easy to have said, `What a dream season,’ kicked the feet up and cruised out the rest of the year.”

Even McDowell says he never saw this year’s success coming.

“I’ve exceeded all my expectations this year,” McDowell said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

That doesn’t mean McDowell believe he’s overachieved. That’s what you took away listening to him after Wednesday’s pro-am. He’ll need some rest after playing his seventh consecutive event this week, but he’s eager to build on what he’s learned this season.

“I need to pour a lot of the confidence, and stuff that I’ve gained this year, back into my game,” McDowell said. “I know how much better I can get. There is a lot of room for improvement.”

Clarke loves what he’s seeing in his friend, what he saw in McDowell coming from four shots back in the final round to beat Woods last weekend.

“The season G-Mac’s had, I don’t think it would have made any difference who he was up against on Sunday,” Clarke said. “He’s a tough man to beat right now. Doesn’t make a difference if it’s Tiger, Lee [Westwood] or anybody.”

Nobody will leave 2010 more confident than McDowell.

“It’s been an amazing year,” he said.


Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell