Major winners offer advice

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SAN FRANCISCO -- The last time the U.S. Open was in California, in 2010 at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell had an even par total to beat a star-studded leaderboard that included Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to claim his first major championship. McDowell was the first Northern Irishman to win a major since Fred Daly took the 1947 British Open.

Last year, two of McDowell's countrymen -- Rory McIlroy at the U.S. Open and Darren Clarke at the British Open -- would earn their first majors and make, for a moment, the small United Kingdom country the proudest golfing nation in the world.

Though they shared the same homeland, these were three very distinct wins for players in different phases of their careers. As a 30-year-old five-time winner on the European Tour, McDowell was an established player coming off a win at the Wales Open when he had his triumph at Pebble Beach.

McIlroy was a 22-year-old hotshot who was haunted by his collapse at Augusta earlier that year. He then won by 8 shots at Congressional. Clarke was an old man of 42, on the mend but a semblance of his former self when he surprised the world at Royal St. George's.

Any victory on one of the big tours is special, but winning a major is often a life-changing event that catapults a player to a new level of prominence in the game that can be stressful and harmful to his future. And sometimes, it's the spark they need to reach even greater heights both on and off the course.

Bubba Watson has been a major champion for only a couple of months, but he's already grown as a man; he's a father and a husband, and he has new goals for his game. There is more of everything for him: more responsibilities from his sponsors, more media requests and more opportunities to play overseas. Though Watson might not have fundamentally changed as a person, an aspect of his worldview is now informed by his experience as a major champion. Everything he does now is measured against what he did in April at Augusta.

After McDowell's win at Pebble Beach, he went around to some past major winners to get their opinions on how to avoid some of the pitfalls that come with life after winning one of golf's four biggest prizes. What he came away with was no clear road map for how to navigate the world of the freshly minted major champion.

"It's pretty difficult because it's different for every player," McDowell said on Tuesday at Olympic after his practice round. "I've got 10 to 15 years of my best years coming up, but my life changes a lot in the short term because people's perception of me changed. Your priorities can change without you realizing it.

"For the next two or three months after the tournament people bring you back to that day when you won every time you play golf. But after a while you shake it off. Then you have to not become a victim of your own expectations. All of a sudden, eighth- and ninth-place finishes weren't good enough for me anymore. Everything becomes exaggerated in your own head."

McDowell contrasts his own experience immediately following his U.S. Open win with that of his good friend, McIlroy.

"Rory has been groomed to be a superstar for many, many years," he said. "So he took winning a major a little bit more in stride than myself. Getting the major has given him confidence and spurred him on. He's reacted a little different from a lot of young major champions, but he still struggles from time to time with his own expectations."

But for Clarke, who pulled out of the U.S. Open because of a nagging groin injury, taking the British Open title has been a hard burden to carry. The 43-year-old, 14-time European Tour player hasn't had a top-10 since Royal St. George's and has missed nine cuts in his past 20 events.

"Darren was perhaps in the twilight of his career and people had written him off and all of sudden he achieves one of the biggest goals of his career," McDowell said. "He's really struggled with that. It's had a really negative impact. He wants it so badly. He feels like he's got to prove to other people that St. George's wasn't a fluke. So he's struggling with expectations that the British Open created.

"Perhaps deep down, he's achieved his most massive goal, and what he's working for in the game of golf, maybe he's not there anymore. It's tough to know. It just affects everyone's head differently."

Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, agrees with McDowell that players respond differently to a major win based on their personal situation, making it difficult to know what's right for any given individual. Ogilvy believes, though, that it's important for a new major champion to set limits with his time.

"I made the conscious decision to not play too much. You get invitations to play everything," said the 35-year-old Australian. "Monday morning after you win your first major, learn how to manage your time. Don't forget that you're actually a golfer. Keep doing what got you there in the first place, and learn how to manage all the extra stuff. You don't have to do everything. Most people feel obliged to do a little bit more."

After winning the '09 U.S. Open, Lucas Glover said he had many opportunities to play tournaments overseas, but he opted to stay stateside.

"I played a lot that year and I wanted to get ready for the next season," Glover said. "Obviously, you're in wherever you want to play, but you have to try to do what's best for your game."

On Monday and Tuesday, Glover led Brian Harman around Olympic in practice rounds, extolling the virtue of patience to the 25-year-old rookie who is playing in his first U.S. Open. The advice Glover gives about course strategy and the ideal temperament to carry around a difficult Open course are invaluable lessons that could help Harman win his first major.

But almost no amount of suggestions and strategies could ever fully prepare the rookie to deal with what happens to him the day after he potentially wins the U.S. Open. How he responds might just shape the rest of his career.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.