McDowell ready for another chance

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- He hoisted a major championship trophy, father by his side, and yet doesn't even consider it the greatest moment of his sporting life.

Graeme McDowell would give the nod to his clinching birdie putt at the Ryder Cup, and since it all happened within the span of a few months, you can imagine the difficulty in returning to planet Earth and trying to ascend back into the stars again.

McDowell is just now seemingly headed back into orbit.

He clearly crashed to Earth after a remarkable 2010 in which he won four times worldwide, including the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and became the hero at Celtic Manor when he earned Europe the winning point at the Ryder Cup. But he has not won since that year and had enormous difficulty last year living up to the expectations -- his own, and others.

"I've talked about the experiences I went through from about March through August last year, how tough they were, how frustrating they were, how much I learned from that,'' McDowell said.

"And how much I'd love to have that problem again.''

That "problem'' is within sight again after McDowell shot 67 on Saturday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes to play his way into the final twosome with tournament leader Adam Scott, who is seeking his first major championship and never has been close to this position in his career.

For the second straight major, McDowell will play in the final group, having come up a shot short last month at the U.S. Open in which he played alongside Jim Furyk and seemingly played his way out of the tournament by going 4-over par through 10 holes, then grinded his way back to give himself a chance.

McDowell needed to hole a 25-foot birdie putt on the Olympic Club's final green to force a playoff with Webb Simpson.

"It was a shot in the arm for him as any top finish in a major championship is,'' said McDowell's longtime caddie, Ken Comboy.

"Post Pebble, it's the first indication he'd has that he could go on and do it again. Although on the Sunday he didn't play anywhere near good enough to win the U.S. Open, his mental approach and his game plan and everything about the day was acceptable. You're not going to play great golf all the time.

"Looking back, he's disappointed he didn't play his best golf, but it was a huge stepping stone to knowing he can do it again.''

McDowell, who turns 33 on July 30, knows about playing in the final group and making up a deficit. He trailed Dustin Johnson by three strokes at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and had the lead after two holes. The conditions that day dictated a brutal finish, and that could be the case again Sunday, when the wind is finally supposed to blow.

But he has more to worry about than Scott and the conditions. McDowell is tied with second-round leader Brandt Snedeker, who shot 73 but still finds himself in a tie for second. Tiger Woods is just a shot behind after shooting 70. Major winners Ernie Els and Zach Johnson are another stroke back.

"I think since I was a young boy I dreamed of coming down that last fairway on a Sunday afternoon, the last group in the Open Championship,'' said McDowell, who is from Northern Ireland. "And I can draw on my experiences at the Olympic Club a few weeks ago, in the last group of the U.S. Open.

"So this is special for me ... back-to-back major championships to be in the last group on a Sunday afternoon. I talked about it early in the week; I can't expect to win this week, but what I can expect to do is compete if I do the right things, and to give myself a chance to be within three or four in the lead going into a Sunday afternoon and playing with the leader, that's really all I can ask for myself the last few days.''

For what it's worth, three of the past seven major championships have seen the winner come from 4 shots back in the final round, including Simpson last month. And in the last 16 majors, only four have been captured by the 54-hole leader.

Then again, Scott has looked solid through three rounds. He made just one bogey on Saturday and has shot scores of 64-67-68. A bit of wind might make things more interesting, but Scott is a solid ball striker who might thrive in those conditions as well.

So might McDowell.

"He's not afraid of windy conditions,'' Comboy said. "He grew up in the wind. If it blows, we'll relish the prospect. And the other guys will be playing the same conditions as him. Nobody is going to shoot 63 on this golf course and come from behind. They'll be no excuses. We'll go out with a level playing field and that's all you can ask for. We'll go out for the second straight time in a major with a chance to win.''

And McDowell said he couldn't help but think about the possibilities. After his close call at the U.S. Open, McDowell said he "fancied my chances'' of winning the Claret Jug.

When Darren Clarke was getting ready to return the trophy this week, McDowell told him he liked the idea of the trophy returning to Northern Ireland. He said he was referring to the Northern Irish players in general, including Rory McIlroy. But clearly he had an inkling it could be him.

"And obviously someone is going to walk away from here tomorrow night as a major champion with the Claret Jug,'' he said. "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.

"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.''