KAPALUA, HAWAII | Graeme McDowell eased himself into a new season on the PGA Tour at Kapalua, confident he is now a far more complete player than he was 12 months ago. Crucially, he discovered “my best golf is good enough,” by winning the U.S. Open last June. And he will know how to handle Tiger Woods when next they meet down the stretch in pursuit of glory.
“I believe Tiger will be back,” said McDowell. “He’ll be back strong, though probably not as strong as the peak he reached in 2000. Back then, he was doing things that were simply incredible.”
The 31-year-old Irishman, whose new Srixon/Cleveland contract meant using new equipment in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, believes he took a huge step by beating Woods in last month’s Chevron World Challenge. And he claims that his own self-belief is also true of the majority of quality players these days.
“Over the last two rounds of the Chevron, I learned how to play with Tiger,” he said. “While coping with all the stuff going on inside the ropes, it helped me get to know him. That’s a big part of being able to compete against him because he obviously possesses a big intimidation factor as the greatest player to have played the game. Yes, I believe he is greater than Jack Nicklaus and I expect him to beat Nicklaus’ record.”
But Chevron wasn’t a PGA Tour event, much less a major. “True,” replied McDowell. “But I sensed how much Tiger wanted to win. That’s probably the only thing I sensed … how badly he wanted it. We both wanted it. That’s why that weekend is going to stand me in good stead in the months and years ahead. It was a serious work-out which I will be able to draw on down the line.”
Were there any words at the end? “No,” he said. “I imagine I said something when we shook hands but I can’t remember. I haven’t seen him since. Seeing my face on the replay, I looked nearly apologetic. That was because I sensed how much Tiger wanted to win.”
McDowell plans to play 27 or 28 tournaments this year and when he returns from Abu Dhabi later this month, will remain at his U.S. base in Orlando until after The Players Championship. Then he heads for Europe. Later on, he faces the FedEx Cup playoffs for the first time, and while challenging for the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, he is hopeful of renewing his Ryder Cup partnership with Rory McIlroy, this time in the World Cup in China in November.
“Rory and I missed out by one a couple of years ago and I’d love for us to give it another go,” he said. “We both enjoy playing together.”
Mention of the Ryder Cup inevitably raised the matter of his first round pairing with Hunter Mahan at Kapalua. “Sure, we chatted about Celtic Manor but not about our match,” said McDowell. “We didn’t go into detail. We just talked about how great the week was; how the Ryder Cup is the greatest show on earth. In many ways our match has brought Hunter and I closer together. I’ve got to know him and he’s a quality guy.”
With much pomp and circumstance in January 2006, Jim Furyk was announced at Kapalua as the face of Srixon. Five years on, Furyk has moved to TaylorMade and has been replaced relatively quietly at Srixon by another U.S. Open champion in a deal worth an estimated $3 million per year to McDowell.
Though tournament golf is littered with stories of players such as Corey Pavin and Steve Stricker who suffered grievously from changing clubs, McDowell appears to have no such fears, even coming off his best year on Tour. His confidence has much to do with a long-term relationship with Mike Dunphy, a one-time coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where McDowell went to school.
“I played Cleveland and had a good relationship with Mike at UAB, which continued into my professional career,” he said. “So when my Callaway contract expired, I simply got in touch with an old friend at Cleveland/Srixon. People are probably scratching their heads, but rather than feeling apprehensive, I’m excited about the start of a new era of research and development with some new guys.”
He went on: “You’re talking about players who had bad experiences in the ’90s. Back then, apart from a few big companies, there was a huge gulf in the technology, but manufacturers have become incredibly competitive since then. The key elements are the driver and the golf ball and I’m confident that Srixon’s ball is among the best in the world.”
At Kapalua, McDowell carried Srixon irons four to nine, three Cleveland wedges, his old Odyssey White Hot 7 putter, two Adams hybrids, a new Cleveland 3-wood and his old Callaway driver.