Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Graeme McDowell targets 'A' game show

Graeme McDowell

The towering 93-foot lighthouse at Harbour Town is a shining beacon for Graeme McDowell after yet another dispiriting visit to Augusta National.

It didn't take long this week for McDowell to shake the dust of the 2014 Masters off his shoes – from the moment the defending RBC Heritage champion set foot on Hilton Head, he was back to his usual, wise-cracking self.

"The Masters is like a final exam, followed by adult spring break here," he joked. "I got a big fat 'F' last week though, so I'll be working harder this week."

It probably helps if Heritage winners have a good sense of humour, given the garish red tartan jacket they are obliged to wear – it's more like an old TV test card than something you would want in your wardrobe.

Yet McDowell is a very serious contender indeed around Harbour Town Golf Club's tight and strategic golf course, especially if ocean breezes make the going as tough as they were during last year's wind-blown final round.

Bitter cold and driving rain briefly dumped America's southern states back into the heart of winter this week, but the skies cleared yesterday and no disruptions are expected.

But the Portrush man, inevitably, will be cheered by forecasts of lively north-easterly breezes gusting in off the Atlantic at speeds of just under 20mph.

He certainly reaped the wind on Sunday last year. As most of the field were blown badly off course, McDowell brilliantly came from four behind at start of play into a share of the lead with Webb Simpson before beating his fellow US Open winner on the first tie hole.

Wisely, the 33-year-old has been keeping his expectations in check, saying: "Last year's win was great, but it means nothing now. It's important to treat this like any other event and hope things go well. I enjoy managing the expectations of a defending champion, but I'm aware of the pitfalls and don't want to put too much pressure on myself."

Pete Dye built a shot-maker's dream of a golf course at Harbour Town. Unlike Augusta, power is of little significance.

Instead, precision is essential if one is to negotiate safe passage round subtle bends, clear of large trees and well-placed bunkers, and leave a clean shot into small, well-guarded greens.

"The Hilton Head area has always been on my radar and I feel like I can win here," McDowell enthused.

"It's a very nice course that tests every facet of the game, and it's stood the test of time. I'm excited to be back."

Revealingly, as McDowell swept to victory last year, he tied fifth in fairways hit; shared seventh in greens in regulation; and was sixth in putts gained.

This golf course fits his 'A' game to a tee, though Luke Donald, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson, Jason Day and Ernie Els probably feel the same.

McDowell, who features in a high-powered group with Americans Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas, will be determined not to let last week's disappointment at Augusta undermine his form or confidence.

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