The bar is open, the pressures of the past two and a half years slipping away Sunday with each sip of beer from Graeme McDowell’s paper coffee cup.
The Northern Irishman left the Ryder Cup at Medinah last year frustrated with his driver, convinced he needed more length off the tee. Another thought to join a long list.
He had worked the previous year on all things technical and mental, trying to establish a more consistent game and meet expectations he set for himself after winning the 2010 U.S. Open. The added length was something new, and he tested longer shafts, tried swinging harder and established a fitness plan to become stronger.
“I very quickly realized that wasn’t the path I wanted to go down,” McDowell said.
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He quit, afraid his best assets in golf — iron, wedge play and short game — would disappear. He accepted his stature off the tee, knew he had a long way to go to contend on courses such as Augusta National but that his game was well-suited for U.S. Open layouts and courses such as Harbour Town Golf Links, where McDowell celebrated Sunday after winning the RBC Heritage, his first victory as a member of the PGA Tour and first since that major victory in 2010.
McDowell started the day four shots behind leader Charley Hoffman, but his 2-under-par 69 was good enough under blustery conditions to join a playoff with Webb Simpson. He won with a par on the first playoff hole, a trip down the 18th where he had made bogey not long before to allow Simpson an opening.
“Mostly, I’ve been working on the psychologies, really, starting to realize this is a marathon, not a sprint,” said McDowell, who said he performed well in 2012 without a victory as proof. “I’ve got to really start learning how to win regularly.”
The 9-under-par 275 total was the highest winning score since 2005, when Peter Lonard won at 7 under. McDowell and caddie Ken Comboy picked 9 under as the target on the driving range before the round, sensing the direction of the scores. The playoff was the third in the past four years at the Heritage.
McDowell donned the tartan jacket after releasing stress during the week barefoot on the Hilton Head Island beaches. With his fiancee, Kristin Stape, and friends and family members staying in their Sea Pines rental house, McDowell decompressed with wine and company, leaving his work on the course.
“It’s been a great week,” said Stape, crossing the 18th green to watch dolphins cruise Calibogue Sound.
McDowell credited his engagement and restaurant endeavor — Nona Blue Tavern in Lake Nona, Fla., where the bar was open Sunday night — for relieving some of the stress of the past two and a half years.
By Tuesday he will be in the Bahamas, part of two weeks off before rejoining tournament golf.
Simpson was hoping this was the culmination of his own process since winning the 2012 U.S. Open, working through a swing thought and this past week leaning on the advice of his wife, Dowd, to regain his confidence on the golf course.
Simpson, whose unflappable demeanor friend Kevin Streelman said served as an inspiration, had that patience tested numerous times during the final round with gusts reaching more than 40 mph. On the sixth green, wind blew Simpson’s ball 6 feet farther away before he had addressed his putt.
And on the critical playoff hole, Simpson executed a seemingly perfect putt from 34 feet, off the green over a ridge, only to have his ball blown 7 more feet after nestling close to the hole. He missed the putt coming back.
“It’s as hard as we’ll ever play,” Simpson said of the final-round conditions. “The highest gust someone told me was 42 miles per hour. That’s borderline having to call play.”
Third-round leader Charley Hoffman, searching for his third PGA Tour victory, soaked his chances on the par-3 14th, making double bogey after finding water right to drop to 7 under. He shot 6-over 77 Sunday, balking in the wind he challenged the previous day, and fell to tie for sixth.
McDowell embraced the wind, knew he needed the breeze for the leaders to stay within his reach. And when given a chance to conquer the 18th hole in the playoff, he hit two perfect shots — driver, 6-iron to 13 feet. Two putts for the tartan jacket.
Soon, the green was flooded with tartan, McDowell posing for pictures and delivering a short speech — “What do they say, ‘Get your plaid on?’ ”
When he arrived at the victor’s news conference for the first time since the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the beer was waiting.
“It feels a bit different than a regular win, this one,” McDowell said.