By Brian Keogh
Graeme McDowell. Photo by Golffile
Graeme McDowell is determined to enjoy life after 40 and he proved he's still got plenty of game when he drew on his bad-weather DNA to fire a closing 64 and tie for fourth in the Sony Open in Hawaii.
European Ryder Cup captain Pádraig Harrington suggested that the Portrush man should limit his ambitions to a vice-captain's role when McDowell playfully asked for a captain's pick during a Twitter exchange during their Thanksgiving get together at his Lake Nona home.
"Should be in good shape for a pick next September, right Captain?" McDowell tweeted playfully.
"There's 4 vice-captains open," Harrington replied.
It was all good-natured banter, but the Dubliner also knows that an in-form McDowell could be a useful weapon at Whistling Straits in September, especially if it's windy.
While McDowell fourth-place finish helped him move back to 100th in the world, well short of the top 50 positions that would give him a realistic chance of making the team for the first time since 2016, he's now just one win away from moving into an automatic spot on the European World Points list.
He’d likely need to win twice to make the team but after ending a three-year drought by winning the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship last year, McDowell finished tied eighth in the RBC Canadian Open to earn a place in The Open at Royal Portrush to underline his determination not to fade quietly away in an era when power players hold the upper hand.
He turned 40 in late July and turned to 2019 PGA Teacher of the Year, Kevin Kirk, who famously stood in as Patrick Reed's caddie at the Presidents Cup in Australia.
He immediately showed signs of form, contending for the Italian Open and after overcoming wind and rain to finish just two shots outside a playoff for the Sony Open which saw Australian Cameron Smith beat Brendan Steele with a par at the first extra hole, he admitted he's got big plans.
"I've got a lot of ambitions this year," McDowell said in Hawaii, where he turned in 30 by making birdie at the last five holes on the front nine but could pick up just one more shot coming home.
"And it's important to kind of get some momentum, get some mojo going early in the year.
"I'm very content with what I'm doing and the way I'm playing and looking forward to the rest of the season. I started working with a new coach in August, Kevin Kirk, and he's really got my technique dialled back in again and got my head dialled back in again, which is most important. He's got me practising the right way and thinking the right way.
"So I'm excited just where he's got me. I'm just excited with the schedule ahead really. I'm in my 40s now. I'm trying to view this as really trying to enjoy what I'm doing out here.
"I know it's going to not be around forever. It's important to work hard, prepare hard, and just go out there and try and relax and enjoy myself as much as possible."
McDowell surged into contention at Waialae Country Club in Saturday's third round when he made seven threes in a row in the middle of his round, picking up an eagle and four birdies before dropping two late shots to slip back down the leaderboard.
He went into the final round tied for 23rd on three-under but having grown up on the north coast playing links golf in all weathers, he quickly moved through the gears on Sunday. He made birdies at the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth to move into the top three and while a three-putt bogey at the 11th stopped his momentum, he birdied the 14th and 18th to set the clubhouse target at nine-under.
"Three-putt on 11 really derailed me a little bit," said McDowell, who will host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet in May and again next year, when it is likely to go to Portstewart.
"I had it going. I had 20 feet on 10 for six in a row; missed it. I kind of tugged my tee shot into 11, but it was a straightforward two-putt and left it a little short and hit a bad second putt.
"The back nine was pretty tricky after that. You're coming into the toughest stretch of the course, 12, 13, 14, 15; I managed to play those in one-under."
He knew it was never going to be enough but he left Hawaii pleased with his start to 2020 having opened the year with a top 25 in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
"Certainly playing golf is bad weather is something that I did as kid," he said of his performance in tough conditions on Sunday.
"You get a bit spoiled when you're on the PGA TOUR and you forget how to do it. Thankfully deep down inside of me, I still know how to play in the wind and in bad weather.
"Every now and again it certainly serves me well growing up in Ireland.
"Yeah, I'm very happy with the week's work. Tough conditions last two weeks, Maui over to here. Just, yeah, a tough way to start the year really. Lots of wind, lots of rain.
"I'm pretty bullish about the way I'm playing. I like the direction I'm moving with a lot of things, and nice to have a big weekend and punch a nice position as I head into the rest of the season."
As for the Sony Open title, Smith closed with a two-under 68 to tie on 11-under par with 54-hole leader Brendan Steele, who shot a 71 and went on to win with a par-four at the first extra hole, the 10th and clinch his second PGA Tour victory/
The 26-year-old teamed up with Jonas Blixt to win the 2017 Zurich Classic but this was his first individual win and it meant the world to the Brisbane native, who raised $10,500 towards wildfire relief efforts in his native country.
He had offered to donate $500 for every birdie and $1000 for every eagle he made in the tournament to relief efforts in conjunction with his fellow countrymen in the field.
“Every birdie putt I had, just meant that little bit more,” said Smith, who made a brilliant up and down from a bunker on the last to get into the playoff. “Rather than kind of wanting to make it I almost felt like I had to make it.
“I've always been quite good at not giving up. I've never felt the need to kind of mentally check out in any way. It was a big fight all week basically.”