Coming Down the Stretch With Graeme McDowell
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Graeme McDowell: New clubs? New ball? No problem.

Ed. note: I know this is a few days late, but better than never, right? Right.

Leave it to Graeme McDowell to steal the show on Sunday at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. He’s been making a habit of creating excitement in the final round — staring down Tiger Woods at Chevron to beat him in a playoff, draining a huge putt in singles against Hunter Mahan to clinch the Ryder Cup victory for Europe, grinding it out at Pebble Beach to win the US Open, etc.

G-Mac ended 2010 with a bang, so why not kick off 2011 the same way? Well, there were doubts. Switching equipment sponsors from Callway to Srixon, G-Mac was playing with new clubs and ball. He had never played The Plantation Course before and first-timers usually have trouble reading the grain on the greens.

It didn’t take long for McDowell to get used to the his new look and acclimated to Kapalua.

Team G-Mac wanted the wind to blow — the harder, the better — on Sunday. Since McDowell has proven to play well in blustery conditions, they figured that was his best shot at climbing up the leaderboard because he started the day with a six-stroke disadvantage.

After watching the leaders tee off, I popped by the lunchroom to grab a bite before buckling down to get some work done. As I was settling in back at the media center, I saw the leaderboard from the corner of my eye. G-Mac was making his move. He was three-under through four holes. By golly, his manager Colin Morrissey is quite the prognosticator!

You see, on the first tee, Colin told me, “It’s going to be a good day.” I kind of dismissed it because, well, find me a manager that says his player is going to have a crap day. (Plus, you can never tell when those Irish are joking or serious because they make cracks with a straight face — hint: When in doubt, go with the former, unless money is involved, of course.)

My eyes were glued to the telecast and leaderboard. G-Mac continued knocking it tight and draining putts. He made the turn at six-under, still three shots off the lead.

Something pretty magical was happening and if G-Mac kept it up, which I assumed he would, he had a shot at the course record. I wanted to witness it. I braved the long trek to the back nine (if you watched the telecast, you may have noticed it’s not the easiest walking course and there are some lengthy strolls in between holes). I caught up with G-Mac, who was paired with Matt Kuchar, on No. 13.

When I saw Colin, he quipped, “I told you he was going to play well.” I replied, “I know, you’re such a genius! Do you have a crystal ball or something?”

With the wind gusting downwind, the guys drove it to pitching distance. G-Mac hit it up past the hole and let the ball roll back down the slope to six feet from the cup. He made the putt to get to eight-under for the day, 20-under total.

On the walk between 13 and 14, I was joking with Colin about his prediction. He got serious for a second (at least I think he was) and said something like, “At the start of the day, I would have told you that he was going to be in contention.”

Graeme was striking the ball well the first three rounds, but wasn’t putting that well (he ranked 8th in the field). But by Sunday, he had figured out the grain, which made him rather dangerous. Colin added that he didn’t drive it great on Saturday, so he figured Graeme would drive it well on Sunday.

Once again, the wind was helping on No. 14 and Graeme almost drove the green. Initially, he pulled out a wedge, but then grabbed his putter. He was about 10 yards in front of the green, but had to go over a hill. No problem for G-Mac, though. He nearly made the putt for eagle. Tap-in birdies aren’t the worst thing in the world.

With the par-5 15th coming up, G-Mac had another birdie opportunity. He didn’t love his pitch and was left with about 30 feet for birdie. I was starting to get nervous because it now became very possible for him to break the course record of 62 that K.J. Choi set in 2003. G-Mac’s birdie putt snuck in the left side for a share of the lead. Team G-Mac reacted with fist-pumps all around.

“You got a pen and paper, I gotta start writing my speech,” joked Colin.

The energy was unbelievable. It was similar to something I felt when Tiger is in the hunt, like on the back nine at Pebble Beach during the third round of the US Open. Obviously, Tiger’s was much more vigorous considering it’s Tiger and it was at a major. But for a limited field event in January, it doesn’t get much better.

As G-Mac’s caddie Ken passed by Colin in the walkway between 15 and 16, he looked at Colin and did his best not to smile, but he was quietly beaming. He gave Colin a look and goes, “Mmmpphh.” (Apparently, it’s a Monty thing.) You had to be there, but it was funny.

The 16th was another short hole with the breeze blowing downwind. Graeme pitched up to six-feet, and naturally, drained the birdie to tie eventual champion Jonathan Byrd at 23-under.

At this point, G-Mac was running out of holes. Byrd and Robert Garrigus were on 14 or 15 and the finishing holes didn’t leave much room for trouble. It was going to be cutting it close. Plus, holes 13 through 16 were basically a pitch-and-putt contest.

As we started to rush toward the 17th tee, we stopped for a minute because we heard the crowd hushing people as Kuchar still had to putt. “That sucks,” I said. “That’s like what happens when you play with Tiger.”

I didn’t mean for my comment to sound like I was comparing Tiger and G-Mac, but honestly, it’s not that absurd. I always feel bad when Tiger makes his putt and his playing partner still has to finish, but the gallery is rushing off to the next tee. I suppose that happens when other players are playing well and I can’t explain it, but this just seemed different to me.

No. 17, the par-4 with a ravine in front, was playing even longer with the players fighting the wind. Graeme didn’t look pleased with his approach, but he easily two-putted for par.

Walking to the finishing hole, Colin said, “Graeme hasn’t birdied 18 this week.” Really? “Well, that’s terrible,” I joked. “What a hack!”

G-Mac was 11-under through 17. With a birdie on the par-5 18, he would get to 12-under for the day and break the course record with a 61. It was nerve-wracking to watch. He pitched it to eight feet. Given Graeme’s clutch-putting prowess, the chances seemed good he’d come through.

Standing next to the green with Gary Planos, we watched as Graeme’s putt burned the left edge. Oh, so close! Well, 11-under 62 isn’t so shabby. He finished one stroke out of the playoff between Garrigus and Byrd (I would have bet good money that Graeme would have won).

G-Mac reacts to missing a birdie on 18 to break the course record

“I hit [the birdie putt] so hard, by the time I looked up, it was kind of past the hole,” said McDowell in his post-round press conference. “It was a tough putt, though, it was a double-breaker, and it broke right even though the grain was right-to-left. Maybe if I had hit it easier, it would have had a chance to go in, but I kind of shoved it.”

But G-Mac was happy with his strong finish, particularly since he had played the last six holes at even par through the first three rounds.

“I didn’t finish the golf course very well at all here during the week…That was the key really. That was the difference between coming up short and having a chance to win this weekend.”

Turned out 18 was the difference last week. It’s a birdie hole!

Regardless, Graeme shut up the naysayers who criticized him for the equipment change. After the Chevron World Challenge, he went home to Portrush, Ireland, for the holidays. With the heavy snow, he didn’t practice for a few weeks. He played some in Orlando the week before he left for Hawaii, but nothing too rigorous. And G-Mac still went out and tied the course record and placed third.

In my opinion, G-Mac is the best player in the world right now. Give me the choice of any player to make a clutch putt on the final hole, I’d pick McDowell without a question. I mean, the dude is a legend!

Since he took up his PGA Tour card this year (he’s playing in Europe still, too), look for him to become a fan favorite in America — even more than he already is.

(AP Photos/Eric Risberg)