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Graeme McDowell returns to Saudi Arabia with big goals

Graeme McDowell before 2021 Saudi International
Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell returns to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday as the defending champion and, despite a recent run of poor play, exudes optimism about his chances to qualify for golf’s biggest events in 2021.

Despite recent string of missed cuts, Northern Irishman points to swing work as catalyst to reclaim peak form of a decade ago

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – A year ago, Graeme McDowell arrived in the Middle East looking for some magic.

It had been nearly a year since he won the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort title on the PGA Tour and much longer since he had tasted victory on the European Tour, at the 2014 French Open.

Sitting at 104th in the world at this time last year, McDowell needed a spark to boost him into the top 50, which would merit a start in the Masters and a leg up on making his fifth Ryder Cup team. McDowell found it, shooting 12-under 268 at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club to hold off defending champion Dustin Johnson and win the European Tour’s second edition of the Saudi International.

The victory vaulted the Northern Irishman to 47th in the world and a solid start to the season.

Of course, that triumph came about 1½ months before the deadly COVID-19 virus suspended play on all major golf tours, locking down much of the world in a pandemic from which we still are trying to recover.

For the 41-year-old McDowell, the break proved to be unkind to his golf game. Since his return to professional golf at the PGA Tour’s Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial in June, McDowell has made only five cuts in 19 worldwide appearances.

A tie for 24th at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship rates as his best finish in the past eight months, and he returns to Saudi Arabia after consecutive missed cuts, at Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

At No. 91 in the Official World Golf Ranking, McDowell once again steps onto Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in search of some magic (tee times).

“Obviously, that three-, four-month break, it broke my momentum a little bit, and I didn't respond well when we came back in the summer,” McDowell said. “It’s always nice to come back to a golf course where you have great memories. I would love to get some of that momentum back again this week.”

The sort spark that McDowell is seeking dates to his 2010 U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach. He shared the European Tour’s player-of-the-year honor that year during a three-victory season as he rose to No. 6 in the world.

Yet, McDowell, like so many golfers before and after him, thought that he needed to change his swing, and a change in instructors was part of the process.

A couple of years ago, McDowell retained instructor Chris Como, who advocated a return to McDowell’s former swing. Stubbornly, McDowell dismissed the idea.

With the short-lived Como relationship in the past, McDowell worked with Kevin Kirk. For a period of time, including during the 2020 Saudi victory, Kirk’s way worked for McDowell. At some point, the instruction became overly technical, McDowell said, and he turned to Lucas Wald.

Wald, like Como had years earlier, suggested that McDowell return to his swing of a decade ago so that he might replicate the results of a decade ago.

This time, McDowell followed the advice, which, began with studying his old swing on video.

“I always thought it looked a little kind of reverse-C, a little kind of underneath,” McDowell said. “Kind of my arm plane looked always kind of low and short and around my body.”

Like many elite golfers, McDowell fell into the trap of always trying to improve and didn’t appreciate what he had.

Part of the issue also came from his looking down the range and seeing the textbook swings of Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Tiger Woods and others and trying to emulate them.

Now that he has got the ball-striking back in form, he said he is looking to improve other areas of his game and win for a 12th time on the European Tour.

“It's definitely been more of a cold putter the last couple weeks than anything else,” McDowell said of his recent struggles in the Middle East. “I actually feel like my long game is trending in the right direction. I definitely just need to get the putter heated up a little bit, and these greens this week look fantastic.”

McDowell needs to post solid results soon if he wants to play in the two upcoming World Golf Championships – late this month at The Concession in Florida, which replaced the Mexico City stop because of COVID-19, and in March at the Match Play – and then the first major of the season, in April with the Masters at Augusta National.

McDowell will need to play well in all of those events to secure one of the 12 spots for the European team that will play the Americans in the Ryder Cup on Sept. 24-26 at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.

“I'm excited,” he said. “I think I can have a good year. I feel motivated, and I feel healthy, and like I say, that Ryder Cup carrot is out there dangling. This time last year, when I was sitting here, it felt a long, distant kind of dream. I feel like when I won here last year, it became very achievable for me.”

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