Graeme McDowell seemed to have everything back in alignment after spending three days with his coach, Pete Cowan. Going into Saturday’s third round he’d managed a first-round 67 followed by an up-and-down 69. But he was cruising.
And then into the third round he kind of kicked it into overdrive. Between the few holes he got in Saturday afternoon and those he completed Sunday morning, he had the tournament by the throat. He had a 4-shot lead going into 18…but a freakish bounce short-right of the green that kicked all the way across the green and into the lake put things back in question again.
But he began the fourth round with four steady pars and a birdie on 5 to get himself going. Unfortunately, he ended up going the wrong way:
I didn’t even swing it my best this morning, to be honest, but I hung tough this morning. This afternoon I make a bomb [putt] on 5 to really get going. And I stand up on 6 and adjust [my swing] make a negative swing and hit it in the right trees there. I stand up on 7 and react to the right shot and hit it left to the water, you know.
At that point I just felt the life kind of drain right out of me. My energy levels [go] from [an 8 out of 10 to a 2]. I’m chasing it on 9 [from a Palmetto bush] to make bogey there. So it’s just one of those days. Everything I tried just went wrong. I just made a few sour looking swings coming in there.
Well, it was actually more than a few. He hit it in the water on 13, 17 and 18 and threw in a bladed-wedge bogey on 15 for good measure.
But in his inimitable, good-cheer style, he later tweeted:
Oops. That was not the day I wanted. Bogied 6 and 7 and went completely flat. Chased it and couldn’t make it happen. Onwards and upwards.
So what happened? How does one of the best golfer in the world (still No. 5, even after this debacle) go from cruising to the trophy to trying to courteously get out of the way of his playing companions because he’s playing so badly?
He was asked what happened on that tee shot on 6, the question going to how could he have been playing so well and then hit it deep into the tree line?
I was trying to hit a little draw up there. And the last thing [I thought] about before going into the ball was don’t hit it left. So I certainly didn’t do that. It was just a negative thought and a negative swing. Kind of ended my day, to be honest.
Having vast personal experience with this precise thing in 124 Champions Tour Monday qualifiers without ever coming close, I know what happened. Simply, you can’t be thinking about your swing when you play.
As I wrote in, “Graeme McDowell’s Malaise,” he had gotten himself into a scary slump over the last couple of months and had flown his U.K. coach, Pete Cowan, to his home in Orlando, Florida, for three days of reclamation work on his swing. And, as the first 59 holes of the tournament proved, it worked.
But when you’re fatigued from having gotten up at 5:00 AM, when your mind has been drained by all the early-morning holes you had to finish, a shroud settles over your awareness. You can’t think with the same level of agility or acuity. And so, as you instinctively begin to sense that, you go from the instinctive, intuitive mindset of great golf, to the pedantic, checklist mindset of mediocre golf.
I once had an epiphany about why my short game was so good. Back when the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS was still on, I never missed it. I’d throw a beer in the freezer for the first 15 minutes of the show and then spend the last 45 minutes before dinner chipping and putting in my living room.
I had a short, wool-pile carpet that was a perfect 10 on the Stimpmeter. Working on nothing but quality ball striking, I’d chip that dozen balls one way and then putt them back the other…all the while that Jim and Robin and their guests droned on in the background. I did this every week night for over five years.
All of this was before I even thought about making a run at the Champions Tour, but when I did finally get into Monday qualifying, I never thought about my short game. I didn’t have to, it was naturally ingrained through experience.
But I didn’t have that kind of quality time investment in my full swing. I approached it the same way—make a bunch of golf swings and feel and see what happens—but I came too late to the attempt at high caliber golf to have sufficient reps built into it.
And so I turned to high quality coaching. And I was fortunate enough to have some great ones, not the least of which was Jim Flick. And it was all good. But under pressure, I had to think about my swing—just to be careful, just to be sure—and, save for some flashes of brilliance, I was unable to “just play.”
And that’s what happened to McDowell on the 6th and 7th tee. He didn’t have enough reps with the swing he’d reclaimed with Pete Cowen to just play. When you don’t have enough reps, you have voids in your awareness throughout the swing arc. And those unknowns engender fear, however subtle. And you can’t play golf in fear.
McDowell will be fine. He has amply demonstrated that he can play instinctive golf. Having succumbed once to all the demands his U.S. Open win placed on him, he won’t let that happen again. He’ll faithfully spend the time to get his reps in. Who knows how long that will take? But he’s so close, it might even be in time for this year’s U.S. Open.