For GMac, that light at the end of the tunnel is confidence

During the Christmas break of the PGA Tour’s wraparound season, Graeme McDowell toiled for seven hours at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, his home track in Orlando, working on his game. 

For GMac, that light at the end of the tunnel is confidence

When he walked in the house, his wife, Kristin, greeted him and said something very telling: “That brings back memories of how it used to be when I first met you.”

Through hard work and good old-fashioned tenacity, McDowell, 38, is attempting to rejuvenate his career after several middling seasons. For three days at Riviera Country Club, site of last week’s Genesis Open won by Bubba Watson, McDowell played like the golfer who won the 2010 US Open, his crowning achievement, and reached a career-high of No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking and not the one who hasn’t won since the 2015 Mayakoba Classic and tumbled to No. 208 in the world as of this week.

“Of course, it’s tough to fight off,” McDowell said. “This game is very difficult and you do ask yourself some deep, dark questions sometimes.”

McDowell bottomed out in October at the CJ Cup in Korea when he was paired with long-bomber Tony Finau in the first round.

“He decimated me off the tee,” McDowell said. “I realised I’d gone from being a middle-of-the-pack guy to one of the Tour’s shortest hitters. My driver was tearing my heart out last year.”

After the round, McDowell and caddie Ken Comboy borrowed a Trackman, a launch monitor used for dialing in performance, and de-lofted his driver setting as low as it could go. Based on the data, McDowell switched to a 9-degree driver, a radical change for him of more than 2 degrees. His ball speed returned and he found an extra 15-25 yards, he estimated. (According to the Tour’s Shotlink statistical data, his average driving distance has improved 10 yards to 290 this season, which ranks 151st.)

This is an important year for McDowell, who is in the final year of exempt status on the PGA Tour for his Mayakoba victory. He narrowly missed the cut in his first two European Tour starts and had one dreadful day at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. His uninspiring play burned a hole in McDowell’s confidence.

“If my confidence could be measured in a red Solo Cup, there was just a little dribble at the bottom,” he said.

McDowell is a husband, a father, a business owner, a brand ambassador and he found that the demands of success on his time meant the level of commitment that made him a champion became impossible. A combination of better time management and a rededication to his old practice habits are beginning to bear fruit. All that is missing is a sprinkle of confidence. That is why McDowell’s Tinseltown resurgence was so encouraging. He held the 36-hole lead after a Friday 66 and entered the final round just two strokes behind Watson following his third straight subpar round.

It sparked discussion about McDowell’s potential role providing veteran leadership to a European Ryder Cup team bidding to regain the golden chalice later this year at Le Golf National near Versailles, where McDowell has twice won the French Open. The former European Ryder Cup hero wants nothing more than to make the team, but he is also realistic.

“Deep down I know I’m good enough, but I’ve got to show, I’ve got to put some results on the board. I’ve got to take care of business,” he said.

That likely will require a string of good finishes and playing with the level of confidence that made him a big-game hunter in match-play — able to knock off Jordan Spieth in singles in 2014, pair with mercurial Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, or close out Hunter Mahan to clinch the 2010 Ryder Cup.

In the final round at Riviera, McDowell opened with a birdie on the first hole and was a stroke off the lead, but there would be no Hollywood ending this time. He made bogey on five of the first six holes on the back nine and skied to a final-round 77 and T-26 finish.

That can happen at Riviera, a golf course where you can’t afford to get out of position. On Sunday, McDowell’s driver abandoned him and he hit only three of 14 fairways. He also suffered from an uncharacteristically bad putting week. He ranked 73rd out of 76 players that made the cut in strokes gained: Putting. McDowell is wise enough to understand sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed.

“A year ago, my game wasn’t good enough to compete at that level,” said McDowell, who ranked sixth in strokes gained: Tee-to-green. “It’s very difficult to do anything in practice that can give you the belief in yourself apart from just going out there and doing it on the stage.”

The end result wasn’t what McDowell hoped for, but the week still can be termed a success, and it could represent a turning point for McDowell.

“It’s just about continuing to fill up the confidence tank, really, he said. “That’s pretty much the only thing that’s been missing with my game.”

Comboy echoed that sentiment. “The light at the end of the tunnel is visible now,” he said. “It hasn’t been for six-eight months.”

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