PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – Going more than two years without a win was enough time for Graeme McDowell to start asking himself the wrong questions.
Was his best golf behind him? Was he even good enough to win again?
He found his answer Monday morning in Mexico. McDowell made an 8-foot par putt on the 18th hole to stay in the game, and then he hit a 5-iron that grazed the edge of the cup and set up a 3-foot birdie to win a three-man playoff in the rain-delayed OHL Classic at Mayakoba.
“I dreamed of this day coming again,” McDowell said. “I thought it would be maybe not quite as soon as this, and I said to myself that I was really going to appreciate it. And I do appreciate it. This feels really nice.”
That par putt on the final hole of El Camaleon Golf Club gave McDowell a 5-under 66 to finish at 18-under 266. Even so, it looked as if that would only be good enough for second place. Russell Knox, coming off a victory last week in the HSBC Champions, had a one-shot lead and was full of confidence.
Knox, however, pulled his tee shot into the bunker in front of a steep lip, couldn’t quite reach the green and missed a 12-foot par putt for a 66. Jason Bohn made tough par putts on four of his last five holes for a 68 to join the playoff.
It didn’t last long.
McDowell, who looked tentative on tee shots and birdie putts over the final few holes, felt a surge of belief in the playoff. He drilled a 3-wood down the middle, and then wisely listened to caddie Ken Comboy, who recommended a 5-iron when McDowell wanted to hammer a 6-iron.
“It’s as good a 5-iron as I’ve hit in a long time,” McDowell said.
Knox missed the green to the left and failed to chip in. Bohn missed an 18-foot birdie putt. That left McDowell to tap in for his first victory since the 2013 French Open. And while it doesn’t compare with his 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, it was more significant than just a PGA Tour event at the end of the year.
He was in the final year of his PGA Tour exemption, which was creeping into his mind. He had not finished in the top 10 in nine months dating to the Dubai Desert Classic. McDowell, who started the year at No. 15 in the world, plunged to No. 85 while trying to find the balance of golf and spending time with his wife and 1-year-old daughter.
“It’s been a rough year for all the right reasons,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying life off the golf course with my beautiful family. Golf hasn’t been the priority it should be. But the last three or four months I got back to where I want to be.”
McDowell and Knox were tied at 19 under when they returned Monday to complete the final round.
Knox birdied the par-5 13th to pull ahead, only to drop a shot on the tough 14th with a tee shot into the left rough and wind so strong that he couldn’t reach the green.
McDowell was well short on a 12-foot birdie putt for the lead on the par-3 15th, and he looked even more tentative on the next hole when he three-putted from 45 feet, leaving his first putt some 10 feet short. It looked as though he wouldn’t get another chance.
“Russell Knox is free swinging coming off the best week of his life,” McDowell said when he finished his round.
Knox made a tough up-and-down for par on the 17th hole by making a 5-foot putt into the thick, wet grain. But his chip was short on the 18th, the par putt for his second straight victory was left all the day, and that was the opening McDowell needed.
Derek Fathauer, the 54-hole leader, birdied the last hole for a 71 to finish two shots behind.
McDowell wasn’t planning on playing in Mexico except for his poor year. He failed to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs, and he chose to skip the final two events on the European Tour because of his mediocre standing in the Race to Dubai. The idea was to put 2015 behind him and get an early start on the new PGA Tour season.
It turned out to be a great decision.
The victory assures McDowell will be in the Masters next year, along with the PGA Championship and The Players Championship. Ranking points from those events will come in handy during qualifying in 2016 for the Ryder Cup and for the Olympics.