03 Mar 2020

Graeme McDowell back with a bang as he targets return to top 20 in the world

The green shoots of recovery are ready to go into full bloom for Graeme McDowell after the Ulsterman has found his groove after a few years in the golfing wilderness. With victory at the Saudi International presented by SBIA, McDowell cruised inside the top 50 on the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time since June 2015 opening the door to a schedule he hadn’t been able to plan in four long years. 

A tweak of his technique with the driver had a negative knock-on effect on his iron play and after a slew of poor results he sought changes elsewhere to turn his career around. By February 2019 he had dropped as low as 259th and spent the whole of 2018 outside the top 150.

“At the end of 2017 I toyed with the idea of getting an American-based coach,” recalls McDowell. “It really boils down to the fact that since I fell outside of the top-50 I just really wasn’t getting a chance to see Pete Cowen enough. He has been by my side for the last 14 or 15 years or so – and he still is part of the team – but Pete does most of the WGCs, all the majors, all the big stuff – and I really just wasn’t getting enough time to see him because I wasn’t at all of those events.

“So I started to ask around and I got some ideas from people and I interviewed a couple of guys and I just settled on Kevin (Kirk), and then we started working together back in August 2019. I just liked his attitude, I liked the sort of energy that he brings to what he does. I liked the way his guys swing it – Patrick Reed and Johnny Vegas both have great technique and great golf swings. And he’s been a breath of fresh air, he really has. 

G-Mac takes a selfie with Pete Cowen and his caddie Ken Comboy.

“Pete is still a huge part of what I’m doing and Kevin’s actually worked under Pete quite a lot and he speaks the same language. So I really didn’t feel like it was a massive deviation from what I had been doing, which was important. He’s brought a lot of simple stuff into my practice, to make my practice better and more organised. I feel like he’s been massively important to me for the last five months. 

“The problem began in my search for a little bit more distance because I changed my angle of attack with the driver by nearly 5 degrees, which is a lot, and I drove the ball really well for a period, but then it started to affect the way I was hitting my irons – they were going too high and I couldn’t keep the ball down very well, so my good wind game had disappeared. 

“I was struggling to flight those balls back down into the breeze. So one of the first remits I had for Kevin when I started working with him was I wanted to get my ball flight back, I wanted to start flighting the ball down again. And that’s probably one of the most significant changes that he’s made with me.”

Prior to enlisting Kevin’s help, McDowell clinched a title on the PGA Tour in March last year at the Puntacana Resort & Club Championship – an opposite field event played the same week that the world’s best were at the WGC-Match Play in Texas. The win came as a huge relief as he was in danger of losing his playing status on the Tour and the two-year exemption was a weight off his shoulders. His world ranking improved but he was still outside the top 100 and it was after the work with Kirk started that he began to contest in the bigger, full-field events again on a regular basis. He posted a pair of top-20 finishes at the Italian Open on the European Tour and then the CJ Cup at Nines Bridge – shortly after a stint as Ryder Cup vice captain – before signing off on 2019 with a T23 at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. He began 2020 with another solid performance of T23 at the Tournament of Champions before getting into contention at the Sony Open and finishing in a share of fourth.

G-Mac is all smiles after winning the Saudi International and banking more than half a millions dollars!

Bounce Back

He then headed to the Middle East and bounced back from a missed cut at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in fine style to win his 11th European Tour title by two strokes ahead of defending champion Dustin Johnson at the Saudi International.

“The victory in Saudi Arabia didn’t have that emotional feel that maybe my win in the Dominican last year had as that was about my employment status –  about having a job to go to on the PGA Tour for the next couple years,” he said. “The win in Saudi felt more like a part of the journey that I’m on to get back to where I want to be. It was obviously an important victory, but I felt like I was ready for it and now I’m certainly ready to take those next steps. My goal is to get back in the top 20 in the world and to be competing. I want another chance at a Major Championship on the back nine on a Sunday. It’s a lofty goal. There’s going to be a lot of steps between now and then, but the Saudi win really gave me the kick-on that I needed.”

Return of the old guard

With the win, McDowell became the second Ryder Cup veteran to make a push towards qualifying for Padraig Harrington’s side this September. McDowell hasn’t played The Ryder Cup since 2014 and Lee Westwood’s last appearance was 2016. Both were Vice Captains to Thomas Bjorn in Paris but with their respective wins in the Middle East they both now have Whistling Straits on their radar. 

“I guess we didn’t really enjoy the vice captaincy thing in Paris,” McDowell laughed. “I would love to be on the team, but there’s a lot of things that need to happen between now and then before I get myself on the team. I’m a little bit like Lee in that I want to play my way on to the team and I don’t want to have to rely on that pick, but we’ll see.”

McDowell played in four Ryder Cups from 2008-2014.

McDowell’s last appearance in the Masters was in 2016 and he will make a return to Augusta next month if he stays inside the world’s top 50 for the final qualifying cut-off date the week before the tournament. 

“I have young kids at home and I want them to see me out there,” he said. “I want to show them that dad is tough and dad can do it and I don’t want to have to pull up the old YouTube videos. It is special to be back, I am really happy with the direction I am moving with my game.”

One thing McDowell is cautious of is where he will take his game. One of the shortest hitters on Tour, the 40-year-old earmarks certain events where he believe he can have success, and eschews those where he thinks he can’t.

“I look at a golf course like TPC Scottsdale for the Phoenix Open – I haven’t been to Phoenix since 2006 because J.B. Holmes won back-to-back there and I thought, well that’s the end of this place for me!

Battling with the bombers

“I spoke to Adam Long, who I’ve played a lot of golf with over the last few months, and he finished eighth in Phoenix, and I asked him: ‘as mere mortals, can we get it around in Phoenix’. And he said, ‘yeah, it was firm and fast’. But I looked at the leaderboard and I feel like all I saw was Tony Finau and J.B. Holmes and Wyndham Clark – guys that I know who all hammer the ball. 

“Thankfully, there still is more to golf than hitting it 350 off the tee, but there’s certain golf courses that you feel like you are two shots behind, per round, standing on the first tee, because guys are going to be getting on the par-5s that you can’t get on, so you’ve got to do it a different way.

“It used to be the case that there was only three or four uber long guys, but now it feels like there’s about 34 of them. So there’s more guys hitting it a long way, but for me I feel like I’m long enough to compete 90 percent of the time. And I’m okay with that.”

One thing is for sure. You can bet that wherever McDowell does tee it up, he’ll be as determined and savvy as ever in his quest to get back to where he belongs at the upper echelons of the golfing hierarchy.

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