By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
ORLANDO -- Graeme McDowell isn't the same person who shot 80 in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard and went on to miss the cut last year.
And not just because he got the better of Bay Hill on Friday with a 63 that left him tied with Jason Dufner and one stroke off the lead, either.
A year ago, McDowell was still coming to grips with being a major champion. He'll be the first to tell you he didn't have his priorities straight. He remembers shooting a commercial at Bay Hill last year and saying yes to just about every interview that came his way. But practice? Why practice?
"My preparation for a golf tournament that's 20 minutes down the
road for me was just horrific," McDowell recalled. "I remember
playing last in the pro-am on the Wednesday last year, and being on
the range at 7:30 with my caddie just searching for a golf swing
because I was off at 8 the next morning. I just wasn't ready.
"I think I had the week off before and there was no reason why I shouldn't have been prepared. But it was just a head space I was in. ... Golf was kind of slipping down the priority list. The rest of the stuff that I was trying to take care of was getting in the way. And like I say, the panic button got flicked here last year and it took four or five months to get over that."
Indeed. He missed the cut at the Masters and went on to "self-destruct" with a 79 in the final round of THE PLAYERS, too. McDowell calls the early exit at the British Open "really the low point" and says he didn't hit "rock bottom and start to bounce up again" until after the PGA Championship.
"It was a pretty awful four or five months for me," McDowell said. "I feel like you learn more from those types of experiences than you do from shooting 63 at Bay Hill. There's not much to learn out there except that if you play great and hole some putts, you can go low. But you learn a lot from days like 80s and just tough beats in your career. …
"I guess I'll look back hopefully on those 10, 15, 20 years' time where I got to grips with the spotlight and becoming major champion and top player in the world, because I want to be back there again, of course. I want to win more majors, and the World Ranking, I want to be the best player I can be."
McDowell, who didn't make a bogey on Friday and played his last 15 holes in 9 under, can take a big step in that direction if he can overtake Tiger Woods and Charlie Wi this weekend. He says he came to Bay Hill mentally and physically prepared this year and he's kind of enjoyed being a bit under the radar again.
"This is always a golf course that I've liked," said McDowell, who tied for second in his 2005 Arnold Palmer Invitational debut. "So I'd say, chalk and cheese this year to last year. I'm definitely in a different frame of mind, shall we say."
That is the key for McDowell. He fell into the trap so many players do after they win a major. Expectations rise and when those aren't met week-in and week-out, a player can have a difficult time accepting that he can't shoot 66 every time he tees it up.
"I remember reading (sports psychologist Bob) Rotella's book
… when he talks about one of the lady pros winning the U.S.
Open, and rating every shot she hit after that," McDowell said.
"Every good shot was like, a U.S. Open champion should do that; and
every bad shot she hit was ten times worse because she was a U.S.
Open champion. That's kind of how it is, your expectation levels
crank up and your patience levels crank down, and you have to
balance those out.
"So like I say, state of mind and getting in a position to prepare well and accept whatever happens. I didn't accept kind of my mistakes last year. I didn't accept hitting bad shots.
"It's all in the old six inches between the ears. Never truer a word spoken; it's a game played in the head for sure."