Sheboygan, Wis. – There is a saying in football that goes something like this: “Act like you've been there before.” The expression is meant to discourage showing off after making a big play. But the phrase had an entirely different meaning for golfer Graeme McDowell one Sunday in June.
When McDowell got to the final nine holes of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he told himself to “act like you've been there before.” It had nothing to do with pulling out Sharpies or doing end-zone dances. It had everything to do with keeping his wits about him, with winning a championship.
“One of the keys for me at Pebble was keeping my emotions in check, that's for sure,” said McDowell, as he aims for a second major championship this week at Whistling Straits. “Compared to weekends where I've been semi in the mix, say at Royal Birkdale on Saturday, when I made a few bogeys and just panicked big time.
“And maybe at Winged Foot (in the 2006 U.S. Open). I was in position there and played with (Phil) Mickelson on Saturday in the third-to-last group and, again, I just panicked and... turned a 72 into 76 or 77. I think at Pebble, I learned from my mistakes and realized that a couple of bogeys at a U.S. Open is not the end of the world. You just have to stay patient and stay in control and stick to your game plan.
“So I think I learned from some tough weekends. I definitely realized that controlling things and not panicking when you get out of position is key.”
In other words, the native of Northern Ireland benefited from having been there before – and acted accordingly. After Dustin Johnson imploded early in the afternoon at Pebble Beach, McDowell kept his cool and kept a grip on the U.S. Open, winning the first major of his career.
Staying focused to win the championship was one thing; dealing with the post-championship pomp is another, especially when you are the first European to win a U.S. Open in 40 years. His California dream come true has turned McDowell into a household name in Europe. He no longer flies under the radar.
“Yeah, obviously life's been a little different the last six weeks,” said McDowell, whose 3-over-par 73 on Sunday at Pebble Beach earned him the one-stroke win over Gregory Havret. “Things have changed. It's been great to be back in the United States the last two weeks. You know, it was pretty busy back home; the Scottish Open, British Open and Irish Open were busy weeks, as you can imagine.
“It's been great to get back to the U.S. Obviously, I'm a little more recognized than maybe the last time I was here and it's been an amazing response from people, you know, just lots of congratulations from people.”
The pinnacle moment of McDowell's career has segued into a challenging few weeks. The attention and distractions that come with the accomplishment have found the 31-year-old McDowell stuck in the 20s. He tied for 21st at the Scottish Open, tied for 23rd at the British Open and tied for 22nd at the Bridgestone Invitational. He actually did worse in the Irish Open, coming in 31st place.
Over the past few years, there have been numerous examples of players who have disappeared for a time competitively after breaking into the major championship win column, from Trevor Immelman to Geoff Ogilvy to Y.E. Yang to Stewart Cink. Finishing in the 20s is nothing to be embarrassed about, but McDowell now understands what some of his celebrated colleagues have gone through. The schedule doesn’t provide much time to catch your breath after a historic win.
“The (British) Open came too early for me,” McDowell said. “I was still on an unbelievable high. It was very difficult to come down because everybody was reminding me of it... It was difficult to come down from that high and I didn't really want to come down from that high. Obviously, I wasn't as focused a golfer as I needed to be... There's no doubt, I wasn't ready.
“These last couple of weeks I've felt more like myself... I think maybe getting out of the British Isles has been a big help for me because it's taken the focus off me a little bit. I played great golf last week (at Firestone) and I had a good practice session here this week. I'm excited about playing golf again; that's the key.”
The topography and layout at Whistling Straits suggests that a native of the British Isles might feel at home this week. Architect Pete Dye essentially turned the flat farmland along Lake Michigan into British coastland. McDowell agreed that there are striking similarities to his homeland courses, but significant differences as well.
“I played 18 holes and I was really trying to label this place,” McDowell said. “It's very difficult to do it; it's some kind of links golf course. It's got some length and it's got some teeth to it. It's got a bit of Kingsbarns in there, A bit of Ballybunion and Portrush, everything rolled into one... It's a visually stunning golf course.
“The fairways are not very inviting at all. You don't really see much of your target area, so you've really got to know your way around and pick your spots.”
Could McDowell find his way around in fewer strokes than the rest of the field? Perhaps. After all, the last time an Irish player won a major championship – Padraig Harrington – he went ahead and won a second major, winning the 2008 PGA Championship after earning the British Open a month earlier. At the same time, with Tiger Woods showing signs of struggling, the majors have never been more wide open.
“I think Phil (Mickelson) looks ready to win,” McDowell said. “I think Ernie (Els) looks ready to win. I think the world's best players are still the world's best players, simple as that. But when you have guys like Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa, you have the young blood coming through now.
“I think golf is as healthy as it's ever been... We have such a wealth of talent all over the world. I think people love an underdog, no doubt about it. But people love Tiger Woods and they love the big players to win as well. So I think we have quite a mix going on right now and, like I say, I think the sport is stronger than ever.”
That said, McDowell now has one thing going for him. He has been there before and he has prevailed.