KAPALUA, Hawaii — Graeme McDowell didn’t stop flying around the world until there were no tournaments left for him to play.
After seven straight weeks that took him from Spain to Shanghai to Singapore, then Hong Kong, Dubai, California and Florida, McDowell finally landed home for the holidays in Northern Ireland with snow on the ground and his golf clubs nowhere near him.
And just like that, he’s back to work.
The trick now is to figure out where he’s going from here.
McDowell talked about wanting to take his game to the next level, forgetting for a moment that he already did that. He won his first major in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, one of four victories on the season. He brought the Ryder Cup back to Europe by winning the final match. And he ended the year by becoming the first player to overcome a four-shot deficit in the final round against Tiger Woods.
What next level?
“Yeah, good point. Next level … it’s just kind of something you say,” McDowell said at Kapalua, where he’ll kick off the PGA Tour season Thursday at the Tournament of Champions.
“Unlikely that I will display heroics like I did in 2010, but anything sort of within the vicinity of the year like 2010 would do quite nicely.”
McDowell is happy to be in Hawaii, although he would be among the few with reason to feel melancholy about leaving the snow of Northern Ireland for the Pacific warmth and mesmerizing views of the Maui coastline.
It’s a new year, and McDowell wishes the old year would have never ended.
“I’m in a period now where I want to maintain this world ranking (No. 5) and prove that I’m a world-class player,” he said. “So the next level … what I meant to say is trying to keep doing what I’m doing, really. It’s going to be a pretty tough season to replicate. To win a major championship and to hold the winning putt at the Ryder Cup is dream stuff, really.”
The 34-man field assembled at Kapalua at least shares one goal — they want to come back next year, too. The only way to get a tee time on the Plantation Course is to win on the PGA Tour.
Jim Furyk won a career-best three times last year, including the $10 million bonus for the FedEx Cup. Steve Stricker, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Ernie Els each won two times. There also are newcomers, from Robert Garrigus winning the final tournament of the PGA Tour season at Disney to Tim Clark winning The Players Championship for his first victory in America.
“It’s a place you always want to come,” said two-time defending champion Geoff Ogilvy. “It’s one of the nicest venues all year, if not the nicest. It’s a nice little treat, a reward for winning a tournament the year before, and a little bit of a head start on everyone else. Nice hotel, nice place, Hawaii. Everything is good about this tournament.”
As always, there are a few players missing.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson stopped coming to Kapalua in 2002, while British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen decided to stay home for the Africa Open this week. PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany opted not to join the PGA Tour or play in Hawaii. Two other Europeans who won on tour, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, opted to stay on vacation.
Also missing is Woods, this time not by choice. He failed to win anywhere in the world, much less the PGA Tour, and failed to qualify for the event.
At least this time, his absence is not such a topic of conversation. His unfolding sex scandal and the uncertainty when he would return dominated headlines last season. Now that he’s back to playing golf, the question is whether he can play like he once did.
That can wait until his return later this month at Torrey Pines.
In some respects, the Tournament of Champions might be the easiest event to win on tour. While it’s the only tournament all year with only PGA Tour winners from the previous year, some of them have been in hibernation.
Steve Stricker went nearly two months without playing after the Ryder Cup, returned for a couple of weeks in December, then headed out to Phoenix to start shaking off the rust. When he realized it was not much warmer than his home in Wisconsin, he kept flying west until he landed in paradise.
Ian Poulter, whose season really only ended three weeks ago, was in the Bahamas with his family and didn’t arrive until Monday night. He did not play the massive elevation changes and spacious greens on the Plantation course until his pro-am Wednesday.
Poulter could find the first tee because it’s in front of the clubhouse. He knew the 18th was a par 5. And that’s about it.
The advantage tends to go to the Australians, many of whom have been playing Down Under in the weeks leading to Kapalua. Ogilvy has won the last two years, and a win this week would tie him with Stuart Appleby, another Australian who won three straight years at Kapalua.
“We just play a little bit later and we are competitive more recently than they are,” said Ogilvy, speaking to a 10-year drought of American players winning this event. “But you don’t forget how to play golf in five weeks. I think it’s more a coincidence than anything else.”