News & Opinion

McDowell, Westwood embrace golf’s fun factor

Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood, resurgent in their 40s and with their eyes on potential Ryder Cup berths, recognize that there is more to the game than trophies

ORLANDO, Fla. – For years, the annual trip to Bay Hill has been a gathering place for the best professional golfers, including a large international contingent.

This week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, which precedes the Players Championship, will feature one of the year’s strongest fields, including 13 of the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking (tee times).

Just beyond the top 25, two Europeans in their 40s will bring their resurgent careers to central Florida: Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood.

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Graeme McDowell, who has won twice worldwide in the past year, reminds himself to play for the love of the game.

McDowell, 40, a Northern Irishman who lives in Orlando, is a restaurateur in his leisure time, owning Nona Blue restaurants at Lake Nona in Orlando and in Ponte Vedra Beach. He has won twice in the past year: at the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, a PGA Tour opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic, and last month at the European Tour’s Saudi International.

The Saudi victory propelled McDowell from 104th in the world into the top 50, providing access to events such as the World Golf Championships and, if he can stay in the top 50 for the next three weeks, the Masters.

“Anything from here is gravy,” said McDowell, whose 14 combined victories on the PGA and European tours include the 2010 U.S. Open. “You put so much pressure on yourself for 15, 20 years. It’s certainly not life or death anymore; that’s a wrong expression. I want to be back up there one more time. I want to be back up in the top 20 in the world, and I want to be there on the back nine on Sunday in a Ryder Cup and the back nine on Sunday in a major championship. Just to feel that, because that’s what it’s all about.”

McDowell fell out of the top 50 after a missed cut at the U.S. Open in 2015 and would plummet to 259th in the world in early 2019. Three weeks later, he won at Corales for his first victory in 3½ years.

“When you’ve been scratching around at 250th in the world for a couple of years, it makes you realize just how fun and how cool it is to do the big stuff,” McDowell said. “You want the big stuff back. You don’t want it for money, and you don’t want it for fame. You want it because it’s cool, and it’s what you play the game for.”

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Lee Westwood taps into a mental calmness to find purpose in his game again.

Westwood, 46, takes a different approach to his resurgence on the back nine of his career. He has come to the stark realization that a golfer loses all control once the ball leaves the clubface. That’s why he is not as focused on the result as he is the process, which he can control.

Three years ago, on a drive to Edinburgh, Scotland, Westwood was talking on the phone with Steve Peters, the author of the mind-management book “The Chimp Paradox.”

That day proved to be the beginning of a long journey for Westwood, not merely to understand his mental approach but to embrace Peters’ mind-management philosophy.

Even when Westwood won at the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge in November 2018, he didn’t feel as if he had totally incorporated Peters’ wisdom. Fourteen months later, while winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for his 25th victory on the European Tour victory, Westwood achieved a complete calm, the type of balance that he spent three years trying to obtain.

“I’m not going to die if a putt doesn’t go in,” Westwood said. “I’m not going to die if I hit in the water. I’m not going to die if I miss a fairway. It’s just a game, and what can you control?”

Wind, bad lies in the rough or fairway and whether the ball goes into the hole or not, Westwood said, are factors that must be processed for every shot.

Last week at the Honda Classic, Westwood entered the final round two shots behind fellow Englishman Tommy Fleetwood. Westwood shot even-par 70 at PGA National and tied for fourth, three strokes behind South Korea’s Sungjae Im.

“I felt really comfortable out there,” Westwood said of the final round. “I didn’t start off hitting the ball well. I’m working on something with Robert [Rock, an instructor and former European Tour winner], and 75 percent it’s there. I can feel it, and sometimes I can’t feel it quite as well. I was happy with the way things went.”

McDowell and Westwood are trying to make the European Ryder Cup team that will play the Americans at Whistling Straits in September. In both cases, their attempts at achieving that goal will not overwhelm them.

Westwood will continue to follow his process, with or without a spot on the Ryder Cup team. McDowell recognizes that he plays golf for a living, and the results in any given week will not define him.

“You start playing for the buzz; you start playing for something other than the brand, the fame, sponsors,” McDowell said. “You play for yourself, because you love it.”

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