Imagine winning two of golf’s biggest trophies only a couple of months apart. Then, right when it looks as though a dream season can’t get any better, competing against a limited field of stars and beating Tiger Woods on the last day when no one gave you much of a chance.
That’s how it was for Mark O’Meara in 1998.
And that’s why he can appreciate how difficult it was this year for Graeme McDowell to follow up on a blockbuster season.
“I was winding down in my career, so it was a little different,” O’Meara said Monday. “But I know Graeme a little bit. Look, it’s hard to live up to the hype. All of a sudden, you feel like every major you should be in contention. You’re thrust into the limelight. It heightens the expectations that people place on you.
“And sometimes, there’s a little bit of a letdown.”
O’Meara scooped up a career’s worth of magic in 1998 when he birdied the last two holes to win the Masters, and at age 41, became the oldest man to win two majors in one season when he captured the British Open in a playoff at Royal Birkdale. If that wasn’t enough, he went to Wentworth for the World Match Play Championship and wound up facing Woods in the 36-hole final. All square with seven holes remaining -- three of them par 5s -- O’Meara beat him with a birdie on the last hole.
McDowell’s season in 2010 was eerily similar.
He won his first major in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and then topped that with a week in Wales that felt better than a major. The Ryder Cup came down to the final match, and McDowell hit a 6-iron to 15 feet for a birdie on the 16th hole to take the lead and go on to win the cup for Europe.
Wrapping up his season in an 18-man field at Sherwood, he rallied from a four-shot deficit and made a pair of 20-foot birdie putts on the 18th hole to beat Woods in a playoff. No one had ever come from more than two shots behind to beat Woods in any pro tournament.
The encore proved more difficult than McDowell realized.
“No doubt the expectation levels were cranked up,” he said last week at Lake Nona during a corporate day for Ecco golf shoes. “I played like a man who wanted it really, really badly. And you can’t want it so badly that you get in your own way.”
As he looks back on a year in which he had as many top-10s as missed cuts -- seven each -- McDowell wishes he would have taken more time off. He spent the holidays with his family in Northern Ireland, and then flew across two oceans to Kapalua to start the new season. He shot 62 the last day and missed a playoff by one shot, and then again flew halfway around the world to Abu Dhabi and tied for third.
Not a bad start.
Finally, he gave himself a four-week break to recharge and reflect. He’s not sure he accomplished either.
“It was a switched-on break, not a switched-off break, and I think there’s a difference,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between taking two, three, four weeks off in the middle of the season because you never really switch off. And when I did switch back on, things felt different. My swing wasn’t there. My head wasn’t there.”
He had a one-shot lead at The Players Championship until closing with a 79. He never missed a shot in practice at the British Open, then chopped his way to a double bogey on the opening hole at Royal St. George’s and wondered what hit him.
“Last year, everything went right,” he said. “This year, everything went wrong.”
Even so, McDowell figures he learned more about himself during a winless 2011 than when he felt as though he won everything in 2010.
The greatest lesson?
“That your own expectations are dangerous,” he said. “The good times in golf and bad times in golf are so different. As golfers, we’re unbelievably good at berating ourselves when things go wrong. We’re not so good at giving ourselves credit when things go right. And there’s something to be learned there.”
Was it that bad a year?
He only made it through two rounds of the FedExCup playoffs, and he only made it to the weekend at one major. Still, he fell only seven spots in the world ranking and finished the year at No. 13. It was only two years ago that McDowell was thrilled to crack the top 50.
He earned 158 world-ranking points, slightly more than Rickie Fowler. It wasn’t all bad.
“I probably earned enough world-ranking points for a top-50 or -35 player. In the past, that would have been a great season for me,” McDowell said. “All of a sudden, it’s not a great season for me. It’s a huge disappointment. Have I really changed that much in a couple of years? It’s the perception of what’s good.
“I started experiencing great highs, and all of a sudden I needed so much more of it,” he said. “When the game wasn’t giving me them as readily, I was getting frustrated with myself. I went into the year promising I wouldn’t make these mistakes. Even though I knew the pitfalls, I couldn’t stop from falling in them.”
A year ago, McDowell didn’t want his year to end. This year, it couldn’t end soon enough.
He carries a lighter load home to Northern Ireland this week to spend Christmas with his family. McDowell no longer has possession of the U.S. Open trophy. Memories of the Ryder Cup are not as fresh. Woods won the very tournament where McDowell beat him a year ago.
He can only hope he is bringing with him something that ultimately proves as valuable as any trophy -- perspective.
“The biggest thing I learned this year was to never take anything for granted,” McDowell said. “And to realize that expectation levels are dangerous.”