McDowell desperate for break around Spain’s toughest test

THIS time last year, Graeme McDowell was the toast of the golfing world.

He had highlighted a sparkling campaign by winning the US Open at Pebble Beach along with also capturing the Wales Open before claiming the decisive match for Europe in the Ryder Cup.

He was also on the threshold of pulling off his third victory of the year in the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama before providing himself with the best possible Christmas present, a play-off win over Tiger Woods in the man’s own tournament, the Chevron World Challenge in California. The honours flowed.

Great things were predicted for McDowell in 2011 and seemed certain to follow when he shot a closing 62 in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii for third place, the first event on the US PGA Tour in January, and followed with a 64 on the final day in the Honda Classic in Florida to tie for sixth.

And then, for no apparent reason, the magic seemed to dry up.

By the standards of many others, it could be looked upon as a decent campaign given that he has banked $1,188,898 for 86th place on the US PGA Tour and stands 24th in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai with €749,957.

However, he missed the cut in both the British Open and US PGA, while finishing a respectable 14th in his defence of the US Open at Congressional but no better than 59th in the Masters.

And if he seemed to be confirming his wellbeing after that early foray in the US, he duly tied for third in Abu Dhabi on the European circuit in February. However, that was his best finish anywhere until he jumped back to form when again sharing third spot in the recent Dunhill Links at St Andrews. However, hopes that might inspire a big finish to the season took a hammering when he missed the cut in last week’s McGladery Classic in the US.

McDowell’s latest attempt to kick-start that much desired late season surge comes this week in his defence of the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama, a course regularly voted as the best and most demanding in mainland Europe and where he has enjoyed considerable success over the past few years.

Last year as he fought off the challenge of two other Irishmen, Damien McGrane and Gareth Maybin, to win by two with a three-under-par total of 281. That kind of scoring is its own indication of the severe test presented by the Robert Trent Jones-designed layout, even though it measures no more than 6,988 yards, distinctly modest by modern standards.

Suffice to say there will be no repeat of the 27 under par returned by the imperious Sergio Garcia in Castellon on Sunday.

Clearly frustrated at what he regards as serious under achievement, G-Mac has admitted to “trying too hard which at times has turned me into a mental case”. You can also rest assured that he would prefer right now not to be confronted with questions about his part, if any, in Rory McIlroy’s shock defection from Chubby Chandler’s ISM management company to Conor Ridge’s Horizon Sports.

Considering he didn’t play last week in Castellon and hasn’t qualified for the WGC-HSBC Championship in Shanghai next week, it is surprising that Pádraig Harrington is passing up the €3m pot on offer at Valderrama with its whole host of world ranking, Ryder Cup and order of merit points. He is 79th in the world, 70th on the European money list and virtually nowhere in the race for the European team at Medinah next September.

It is the last event on European soil this year and is of crucial importance to several Irishmen either with their sights set on Dubai or in finishing among the top 115 who retain their cards for the 2012 campaign.

Apart from McDowell, those in the Valderrama field are Peter Lawrie, 54th in the Race to Dubai; Shane Lowry, 63rd; McGrane, 107th; Maybin, 116th; Paul McGinley, 147th and Paul Cutler, playing his third tournament as a professional and yet to make a cut.

McGrane and Maybin performed heroically last year to share second place, two behind McDowell, and earn more than €233,000, the kind of sum that would end their now very definite fears of missing out on the top 115 this time round.

McGinley is another man with happy memories of Valderrama, having won the Volvo Masters there in 2005.

Garcia, fresh from his 11-shot triumph in front of his home fans at Castellon at the weekend, Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose, making a rare appearance on this side of the Atlantic, are also in the Valderrama field.

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