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McDowell makes fine 2011 start

By John Manley

Graeme McDowell put on quite a show at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, although he finished one stroke off the low number that would have gotten him into the playoff for the championship.

McDowell, playing for the first time in an event he'd often dreamed of competing in, and playing competitive golf with a new set of clubs in his bag, started 2011 in fine fashion against a field limited to last year's PGA Tour winners. But through the first three rounds at Kapalua Resort's Plantation Course in Maui, Hawaii, he was merely playing well.

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McDowell began the fourth and final round six strokes off the lead shared by Jonathan Byrd, Robert Garrigus and Steve Stricker, with a smattering of others between. Gaining traction in this tournament took some time for the U.S. Open champion, who opened with a 2-under-par 71, with a pair of back-9 bogeys coming back to bite him on Sunday.

Friday hinted at great things to come as McDowell began with birdies on four of the first five holes. But he spun his wheels thereafter, gaining just one stroke over the remaining 13 frames to finish with 68.

A bogey at the first hole on Saturday was quickly reversed at the third, with three more birdies tacked on before the turn. But after another birdie at 10, he clipped only another stroke off par before holing out at 18 for another 68.

"I really look back at the first three rounds as the problem for me," McDowell said on Sunday. "I didn't finish the golf course very well at all here during the week. I played the last six holes level par through the first three rounds, which isn't good enough. That was the key really. That was the difference between coming up short and having a chance to win this weekend."

Yet, McDowell wasn't entirely without a chance as Sunday dawned. He birdied five of the first six holes, and when he carded birdie at nine and 10, he was breathing hot and heavy down the leaders' necks, who no longer included Stricker.

Feeling supremely confident, McDowell used his putter instead of a wedge to strike his ball from a lie 15 feet off the green at the 14th hole. The strategy was well executed and when the ball came to rest he had just a tap in for birdie that left him a stroke behind Byrd, who was playing two groups behind.

McDowell then showed some of the moxie that he used to pacify Tiger Woods last month when he curled in a 21-foot birdie putt at 15 to gain a share of the lead. He rapped in a 10-footer at 16 to remain level with Byrd, but the magic ended there.

Even par over the final two holes wasn't good enough, as Byrd and Garrigus were each able to clip a stroke off par to edge ahead. McDowell had his chance at 18, but he pushed his birdie putt just right of the cup.

"I hit it so hard, by the time I looked up it was kind of past the hole," McDowell said. "[Playing partner, Matt] Kuchar was on a similar line to me and I was trying to steal a little bit of a line off him, and he kind of just barely got the ball to the hole. It was a tough putt, though, it was a double-breaker, and it broke right, even though the grain was right-to-left. Maybe if I had hit it easier it would have had a chance to go in but I kind of shoved it."

McDowell, who tied the course record of 62 with his round, settled for sole possession of third place and begins his return to the PGA Tour in third place on the FedEx Cup standings list.

"I just hit the ball a lot closer to the hole today," McDowell said in explaining his turn of fortune on Sunday. "I didn't really put my putter under a whole lot of pressure. It's just great to go low. It's great to come out and answer all of the questions this week.

"I realized it was going to be a difficult way to start the season with new equipment in the bag; coming off the back of last year, there was always going to be questions. And it's great to come here and perform the way I have and show people that all I've done is move from one great golf company (Calloway) to another great golf company (Srixon).

McDowell, currently fifth in the World Golf Rankings, takes this week off, but returns for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in that Middle East emirate next week.