It was Sunday morning and one wondered if the 30-year-old from Portrush was dreaming of standing there a week later, contemplating the possibility of going into the final round of the US Open with a chance of winning his first major title.
“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” wrote John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel about dreams and friendship in Depression Era California among the sardine canning factories of Monterey.
For McDowell, however, this is boom time. Following his fifth European Tour win in the Celtic Manor Wales Open two weeks ago, he tees it up at Pebble Beach this week believing that he is on the verge of great things in his career.
But on Sunday he put all that aside to enjoy a dream practice round on one of the world’s most famous courses, pausing for a pit-stop at sumptuous Beach Club overlooking the famed 17th green to watch the final play-off holes of Lee Westwood’s epic victory in the St Jude Classic with Henrik Stenson and his short game coach Peter Cowen.
“A 158-yard wedge?” McDowell asked, incredulously as his former stablemate hit the shot that won the tournament. “No way.”
“Yep,” Cowen replied. “That’s the wow wedge.”
“And it’s downwind,” Stenson said, before Westwood stepped in to drill home a putt that put his countryman Robert Karlsson to the sword.
“This HD is unbelievable,” said caddie Phil Morbey, who had joined McDowell and Ken Comboy to walk the course for his employer, Soren Hansen. “You can see Robert’s nose peeling.”
McDowell doesn’t usually cut short practice rounds at majors to watch golf on TV but he’d been following the dramatic final holes in Memphis thanks to the Slingbox application on his iPod.
“We ran out of juice, so we just decided to pop in here,” he explained, gesturing at the Pacific Ocean and the 17th green where Tom Watson chipped in to beat Nicklaus in ‘82. “Not a bad place for a pit stop.”
McDowell is determined to make sure he enjoys the Pebble Beach experience at a major. He’s played three AT&T Pro-Ams with a best finish of eighth in 2005, but this is different.
“Yeah, it’s spectacular. It’s really different from what you see when you come here in February and March,” McDowell said. “Sometimes you are out here and you pinch yourself because you are playing one of the best golf courses in the world in one of the greatest places on the planet.
The US Open is as good as it gets and the sun’s shining. You have to pinch yourself because you realise you’re in a very lucky position, you’ve got a great job.”
Having closed with rounds of 64 and 63 to win at Celtic Manor and put himself in position to retain his Ryder Cup place, McDowell is looking to push on with the second half of his career this summer and become a serious contender for majors. He knows there is a question mark over his short game skills but he believes that his hard work over the last few years with Cowen has made him a more rounded player in that department and reckons he’s ready to take his chance in a major.
“My short game is improving all the time. I was hard on myself at the Masters. I probably unfairly judged my game and blamed my short game,” he said, recalling his missed cut at Augusta National. “In hindsight, my short game wasn’t that bad. I was just being super critical of myself.
“Over the last two to three years, since I started working with Pete, my short game has improved by 50 percent. My bunker play is better and better and my understanding of these shots around the greens.
I remember being at Winged Foot and really not knowing how to play these shots around the greens.
“I didn’t have any control and Oakmont was the same. But I am learning all the time and Pete is the number one reason why I know a lot more about what I am doing.”
McDowell got a chance to show off his short game skills when he played the 17th with a little financial incentive on the line.
“Hey G-Mac,” Morbey said. “Bet you $20 you can’t make par here.”
Joined at this stage by Ryder Cup rival Hunter Mahan, McDowell jumped at the challenge and hit a high draw with a four-iron that pitched near the flag but got a firm bounce and ran through the back of the green, up against the collar of rough.
Facing a tricky downhill chip, he dinked a delicate recovery to two feet and tapped in to take the cash.
He knows that the short game is going to be crucial this week but he’s confident the iron play that has seen him top the greens in regulation statistics on the European Tour this season will stand to him. If the US Open is on the line on Sunday night, things will be different. He’s here to win and sees no reason why he can’t contend.
“I think you have got to believe you can win,” he said. “I believe it is a test and whoever handles that test the best is going to contend on Sunday. I come here realising that I have got a big challenge on my hands and I have got to take on that challenge as best I can.”