Graeme McDowell returns to RBC Heritage as defending champ and with life in order

sfastenau@islandpacket.comApril 17, 2014 

When Graeme McDowell tugged on a tartan jacket for the first time, it was with his fiancee nearby and his new restaurant's bar on speed dial.

Twelve months after his victory in the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing, the fiancee, Kristin Stape, will likely be back -- this time as McDowell's wife. And the couple are expecting a daughter in August.

And McDowell and his business partners recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of Nona Blue Tavern, a restaurant specialiing in modern American fare near McDowell's home in Orlando.

"This year, life's got a little more balance to it," said McDowell, a Northern Irishman.

The off-the-course stability might be helping McDowell's game. Through eight events in the PGA Tour's new wraparound schedule, McDowell finished in the top 10 five times -- a planned eight-week break from early December to February in between.

He returns to Harbour Town Golf Links, a place he long ago identified as a track that fit his game, hoping to defend after a duel in the wind with fellow U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson in 2013.

McDowell thinks there should be fewer distractions in 2013 with the steadiness of his personal life.

The 34-year-old searched for extra carry in his driver in preparation for Augusta National last week and looks forward to a spot on the European side in September's Ryder Cup in Gleneagles, Scotland.

But there are bound to be hiccups, like the minor public-relations debacle in March.

McDowell, asked during a news conference at the Arnold Palmer Invitational about Tiger Woods, suggested Woods might be facing better competition than past years. His comments, seen as questioning Woods' invincibility, created a buzz.

McDowell later tweeted a clarification and said he might lock up the next time someone asks about Woods.

A more balanced life, but one still in the spotlight.

PORTRUSH TOUGH

McDowell cemented his fame during a Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Three back to start the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open, McDowell witnessed Dustin Johnson's collapse and steeled himself for his first victory in America.

Headlines declared McDowell "nerveless," and his perceived mental toughness has been reinforced with a polished match play record. He has been part of three victorious Ryder Cup teams and helped Great Britain & Ireland win the 2001 Walker Cup.

McDowell credits his mother for his resolve. Marian McDowell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than a decade ago.

She fights a mild form of the disease, McDowell said, but has been able to relax and better combat the symptoms with her son's success.

"She's my rock, and she's my tough one," McDowell said. "And thankfully she's handed some of that to me."

Growing up in Portrush, Northern Ireland, McDowell played Rathmore Golf Club where his father, Ken, worked out a deal with the professional for unlimited golf during the summer.

The running joke among players from Great Britain and Ireland when the weather is poor on the PGA Tour is that they should shine, having grown up playing in outrageous conditions.

McDowell prefers sunshine, thanks, not the more than 40-mph winds that tortured players during the final round the RBC Heritage last year and caused Webb Simpson's first putt in the playoff to roll several feet farther from the hole than it otherwise would have.

The Ulsterman craves tough, U.S. Open-style golf courses, not necessarily tough conditions. But he might accept the weather better than some.

"I am a good wind player," McDowell said. "That week at Hilton Head, I was shaping my irons the way I like to shape them. That Sunday was as good as I've felt under pressure in those type of conditions."

A FIT AT HARBOUR TOWN

After the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, McDowell wanted to drive the ball farther.

He tinkered with equipment and his swing and eventually dumped the idea a few weeks later, afraid his mechanics would slip and his strengths -- mid-irons and wedge play -- would suffer.

The 5-foot-11 McDowell feels comfortable on Harbour Town's tight fairways, though he had not experienced much success before last year.

"It was still on my radar as a golf course I should win on," McDowell said.

McDowell started the final round four shots behind leader Charley Hoffman. And, like at Pebble Beach, the leader came back.

The breeze was McDowell's friend. He knew he needed it to have a chance.

His final-round 69 gave him a 9-under-par total, the highest winning score at Harbour Town since 2005.

The short track fit McDowell's eye for four days.

His search for distance wasn't over. He helped design a Srixon driver during his weeks off that he put in play early this year.

He felt the club gave him an extra 8 to 10 yards of carry, which he thought would be convenient at Augusta National. But after a disastrous driving day to open the Arnold Palmer Invitational, McDowell dragged an assortment of drivers to the range.

The next day with his new stick, he hit every fairway.

That sort of placement will be required at Harbour Town and what draws McDowell here the week after a pressure-packed major championship.

This time, he arrives as defending champion.

"I've had the opportunity to defend a few tournaments," he said. "I'm acutely aware of the pitfalls of putting too much pressure on yourself -- (It's a) good golf course for me (to) execute my game plan and hopefully have a chance to contend on the weekend again."

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

GRAEME MCDOWELL AT THE HERITAGE

Appearances: 4 (2005, 2006, 2011, 2013)

Wins: 1 (2013)

Top 5: 1

Top 10: 1

Prize money: $1,066, 660.00

Scoring average: 71.71

DISINGUISHED DOUBLE

Graeme McDowell's win at the 2013 RBC Heritage made him the eighth golfer to win both the Heritage and the U.S. Open titles. Arnold Palmer was the first to do it when he won the inaugural Heritage in 1969. Here's the distinguished list:

  • Jim Furyk (2003 U.S. Open; 2010 Heritage)

  • Hale Irwin (1974, 1979, 1980 U.S. Opens; 1971, 1973, 1994 Heritages)

  • Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open; 2013 Heritage)

  • Jack Nicklaus (1962, 1967, 1972, 1980 U.S. Opens; 1975 Heritage)

  • Arnold Palmer (1960 U.S. Open; 1969 Heritage)

  • Payne Stewart (1991, 1999 U.S. Opens; 1989, 1990 Heritages)

  • Tom Watson (1982 U.S. Open; 1979, 1982 Heritages)

  • Fuzzy Zoeller (1984 U.S. Open; 1983, 1986 Heritages)

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