For Graeme McDowell, Open and shut
BETHESDA, Md. -- Turns out Graeme McDowell is a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of U.S. Open champion. He didn't even pin a note on the USGA's pillow.
When it came time to say goodbye to the Open trophy he won a year ago at Pebble Beach, McDowell was almost happy to see it gone. They had a great run together, but the relationship had grown stagnant. McDowell wanted out.
Or in breakup guyspeak: "It's not you, it's me."
McDowell shot an opening-round 1-under-par 70. It didn't put him at the top of the U.S. Open leaderboard at Congressional Country Club on Thursday, but he's close. And it never would have happened if he hadn't ended his love affair.
"It's been a great 12 months -- I wouldn't change it for the world," McDowell said. "But I'm happy to be here and happy to hand the U.S. Open trophy back and start talking about what I want to achieve the rest of my career."
Typical man talk. The U.S. Open gave McDowell the best year of his life and what does it have to show for it? Zilch. A Northern Irishman's cold shoulder.
"I felt different this week, no doubt about it," he said after his round. "I've talked about a little bit of a weight that I've felt has been lifted off my shoulders. Today felt normal. Today felt like another major championship for me. It didn't feel like I was the defending champion out there."
McDowell always gets media brownie points for speaking his mind. But he said two things earlier this week that caught everybody's attention:
Honesty Comment No. 1: That McDowell still doesn't think his name belongs on the list of Open winners at Pebble. "But it's there now, so whatever," he said. "Amazing."
Honesty Comment No. 2: That he felt as if a golf cart had been lifted from his shoulders once he arrived at Congressional. "I mean, I've got nothing to defend this week," he said.
The truth is, he never did. McDowell won the championship. Nobody was going to take it away. But when your name becomes GraemeMcDowell2010USOpenChampion, things change. Expectations change. McDowell's game changed.
By his own admission, he might have let his schedule become too bloated. He had a hard time saying no. He was in constant rearview mirror mode; everyone wanted to discuss Pebble 24/7.
McDowell was happy to do it. But slowly he found himself stuck in 2010 while the rest of the tour was in 2011. He led the Players Championship after 54 holes but then shot a gruesome 79 in the final round. He was in contention at the Saab Wales Open but then shot a train wreck 81 in the third round.
Something had to give. McDowell decided it would be his ongoing romance with the memories of last year's Open.
"There's no doubt this week was a week I've been looking forward to for many reasons," he said. "Of course, I was excited to come here and defend, but I was also excited to maybe close the chapter that was the last 12 months."
McDowell's relationship with the 2011 Open didn't get off to an impressive start. He bogeyed his first hole of the tournament.
"Sometimes a bogey can get your attention and kind of slap you in the face and wake you up on an early Thursday morning," said McDowell, who teed off at 7:55.
So McDowell got the course's attention with a birdie on par-3 No. 2. He also birdied par-5 No. 6, then parred the remaining holes to death. It wasn't exciting, but you don't need exciting on Day 1 of the Open. You need survival. You need to avoid snowman dances and crooked numbers.
McDowell could win another one of these, you know. His game has been up and down this season, but he seems different this week. He seems more at ease, as if he's almost relieved his 12-month Open tenure is done.
It's all a mind game, but so far it's working. The twist is that the supposedly new and carefree version of 2011 U.S. Open McDowell is very similar to 2010 McDowell after the first round at Pebble. He grinded to an opening even-par 71 last year and to a 1-under-par round this year.
Whatever happens, McDowell is done with 2010. He didn't indulge in any final hugs or gentle kisses before he packed away the Open trophy and sent it back to the USGA's headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.
"I didn't," he said. "I'm not really that sentimental."
Not now, he isn't. But just watch if McDowell goes back-to-back on U.S. Open wins. The weight of the world will never feel so good.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
2011 U.S. OPEN
Course: Congressional CC, Blue Course
Where: Bethesda, Md.
Yardage, par: 7,574 yards, par-71