By Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Some hangovers last longer than others; it all depends on how much you drink.
“I’ve been working my ass off since September of 2011 to get over the U.S. Open hangover and everything that goes with it,” Graeme McDowell said Sunday night at the RBC Heritage, beer in hand. “This has been a work in progress for two years.”
Another phrase for it would be adjustment period. Or, as McDowell put it, a transition, which is what 2011 was following his watershed victory the year before at Pebble Beach.
Sunday, he finally found the cure with a playoff win over Webb Simpson on a windswept day at Harbour Town.
It was McDowell’s first on the PGA TOUR in three years and moves him from 50th in the FedExCup standings to sixth, his highest position since January 2011.
“Probably too many of them right after the U.S. Open,” said McDowell, looking down at the frosty beverage he was holding. “But 2011 was a year of understanding who I was and where I was going as a major champion and dealing with the pressures and expectations.”
On a day when more players shot in the 80s than the 60s, he found the answer, playing his first 17 holes at Harbour Town with nary a bogey before finishing with a 2-under 69 in regulation and a par on the first extra hole.
“He was a man who was comfortable in the wind is what it looked like,” said Jerry Kelly, who played alongside McDowell in the final round. “That was a solid five-shot wind.”
More importantly, McDowell looked like someone as comfortable in his own skin as he was in the plaid jacket that goes to the winner here.
At the end of last season, McDowell was disappointed with how he’d driven the ball the last couple of years.
He toyed with the idea of trying to add 15 to 20 yards off the tee, but quickly realized two things: It was harder than he thought, and it wasn’t his style.
“In the offseason I thought about longer shafts and swinging out of my shoes and getting fitter and realized I was probably going to take away from my strengths,” he said. “My iron play, my wedge play, my short game, my putting.
“It was a crash course I decided against. I’m accepting my game more and I’m accepting that I can’t move it 300 yards down the fairway.”
It was a decision that played well at claustrophobic Harbour Town, where length isn’t as important as accuracy with fairways as wide as bowling lanes and greens as tiny and firm as a Frisbee.
McDowell needed all the shots he mentioned and on Sunday he executed them.
With par at such a premium, it was only fitting a couple of U.S. Open champions were left to battle it out.
Just getting to that point took persistence and patience for McDowell -- not just over the last few years but in the final round, too.
He made one critical par save after another, beginning on the third hole, where he two-putted from 45 feet.
Three holes later, he got up and down from the back right bunker, rolling in a 12-footer for another par.
On the eighth hole, his scrambling saved him again. Short of the green on the par 4, he got up and down from 81 feet, making a 7-foot putt to keep the momentum going.
A year ago, McDowell was 174th on TOUR in scrambling. This year, he’s first. Adding length wasn't a priority, improving his short game was.
“Bogeys were at every turn (Sunday),” he said. “You really had to control the ball well. I had to grind.
“It's a very major-esque golf course. It's got a huge amount to do with the way the golf course sets up, discipline, patience, all these words that are required to play well around here.”
Though McDowell had won the World Challenge in between his U.S. Open victory and his win Sunday at the RBC Heritage -- beating Tiger Woods in the process -- this was his first official victory since that Sunday along the Monterey Peninsula.
“It feels like something,” McDowell said. “It feels different than a regular win.
“I took a lot of confidence from (the World Challenge), because I had a solid season last year and got nothing from it. We'll all sit here and say you can't measure yourself by wins … it's about the upper curve and getting better and all these things. What it really boils down to, wins are very, very important to us personally. And you take a huge amount of confidence and belief and momentum from those.”
And in McDowell’s case, a reason to celebrate at his new restaurant, which opened earlier this year in Orlando.
After his victory Sunday, he already had his phone out, ready to give his friends back at Nona Blue a call.
Said McDowell: “The bar is open.”