Column: Easy to underestimate, but tough to shake
Graeme McDowell looks like a guy people would pay to be an opponent, someone having way too much fun to accomplish anything important.
And by the time you realize he doesn't really cut loose until the hard work is done, it's already way too late.
Midway through an unusually bright afternoon along the northwest coast, the 33-year-old Northern Irishman was a long way down the leaderboard at the British Open, hiding in plain sight. McDowell had gone off at 4 under, in the fourth-to-last group, but by the time he reached the seventh hole at Royal Lytham, he was giving up ground to players on both sides of him like a stalled car about to be shoved to the side of the road.
''I'm walking down the eighth fairway today ready to throw something in the nearest bush because I'm feeling the British Open getting away from me,'' he recalled.
Then McDowell cut a 9-iron that rolled within 10 feet of the flag, made that for birdie and it was game on. By the end of Saturday, McDowell had zoomed to a 67, the No. 2 spot on the leaderboard and a final-round pairing with leader Adam Scott. A few minutes after that, he was already hard at work again - picturing himself hoisting the championship trophy.
''I'm probably not the only man in this field that's thought about picking this claret jug up, and a few of these guys have had the opportunity to do it a few times,'' McDowell said. ''But there's no doubt I can pretty much imagine what it would feel like.
''I've already thought about a few various liquids that I'd like to put in there,'' he added, grinning, ''and taste what they might taste like out of the claret jug.''
No wonder the man is so easy to underestimate.
McDowell came out of nowhere to win the 2010 U.S. Open, then clinch the Ryder Cup for Europe that October. In December, he made up a four-shot deficit against Tiger Woods in the final round of the unofficial Chevron World Challenge as the two came to the final hole. McDowell hit his approach to 20 feet, Woods to no more than a few. Just about the time he settled over the birdie try, McDowell saw Stevie Williams, Woods' caddie at the time and currently working for Scott, take off his bib and fold it up - the prelude to a familiar celebration.
Not so fast.
McDowell made that, and another of almost the same length on the first extra playoff hole, even though Woods' approach was inside his yet again. Soon after Woods missed, McDowell collected another piece of hardware and one more check, calling his 2010 season ''the stuff of dreams.'' Then he spent a large chunk of 2011 either sleepwalking or hung over.
McDowell would later acknowledge he practiced bantering as much as putting. He turned up alongside Jay Leno on late-night TV and did a cameo on ''Entourage.'' He didn't win on either the European or PGA tours all year, then got beat in the final round of tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic this year.
For all that, McDowell got back on track at the U.S. Open in June, playing his way into the final pairing Sunday alongside Jim Furyk. A miserable front nine at Olympic appeared to take him out of the picture there, too. But just like here, a few birdies on the back vaulted him back into the mix. McDowell wound up a 25-footer for birdie that would have forced a playoff.
But the confidence boost of making it into the final group in back-to-back majors has him believing not only that can win another one, but handle the hoopla better, too.
''I'm certainly climbing back up that mountain again. I guess I've talked about the six months' experience that I went through from about March through August last year, how tough they were, how frustrating they were, how much I learned from that, I suppose, and how much I'd love to have that problem again,'' McDowell said.
''Obviously someone is going to walk away from here tomorrow night as a major champion. I'd love that to be me, and I'd love to experience what it is to go through all that excitement, all that spotlight again,'' he said. ''I think it would be a different deal this time around. I feel like I've probably learned enough about my experiences to deal with it better. But like I say, given the opportunity, we'll see how we do.''
Call it getting ahead of himself if you want. McDowell wouldn't argue. Scanning the names on either side of his after the second round, he said candidly, ''There's no one on the leaderboard that scares me apart from myself.''
He wasn't kidding.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.