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Graeme McDowell starting to rise again

5/13/2011 - Golf Graeme McDowell

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The glow had to fade, the energy had to dissipate, the hangover had to set in. Didn't it?

Graeme McDowell won the U.S. Open this past summer and saw his life change, but refused to slow down.

Along the way, he holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup for Europe, denied Tiger Woods a victory at his own charity tournament, said yes to every interview request, and traveled back and forth through dozens of time zones.

Eventually, inevitably, it catches up, and McDowell, 31, has found himself struggling for much of this year.

Bluntly, he said, "I've been swinging the golf club like an idiot."

Not so much this week at the TPC Sawgrass.

The Northern Irishman finds himself in contention at The Players Championship, a rarity for him this year going into the weekend at any tournament. He made seven birdies Friday and shot a 69 that put him 2 strokes behind leader David Toms.

"I said to my caddie walking to the first tee [Thursday], I said, 'I'm missing being in contention,'" McDowell said. "'Let's go and put ourselves in contention this weekend.' So I'm really happy to be back there. There's where you want to be on the weekends."

Lately, McDowell, ranked fifth in the world, has been taking them off. He missed the cut badly at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and again at the Masters. And after a lackluster weekend at the Heritage, he missed the cut again at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

"I probably hit rock bottom," he said. "I couldn't hit the golf ball any worse than I hit it there."

So, McDowell went back to basics. He hooked up with his coach, Pete Cowen, in Orlando last week, and got to work.

Cowen, who teaches the likes of McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood, tried to give McDowell some structure he's been missing.

"I have a simple belief," Cowen said. "It's not the good shots we're worried about. It's how good the bad shots are going. I try to work from the bottom. It's how good your bad shots are. We all know, if you can get the bad shots around the greens, these guys are good enough to get it up and down from anywhere. Bring the deviation down to a minimum.

"I think that's what we try and do. Make sure they start the ball on line. Make sure the mechanics are pretty sound. Then let the guys' ability to withstand pressure come through. That's where psychology takes over."

If anything, McDowell has needed to clear his mind.

Just think about the schedule he embarked on last year. After winning the U.S. Open, he played 15 more events around the world -- or about the typical yearlong schedule for Woods.

After the Ryder Cup victory, McDowell played the Dunhill Links in Scotland. Then things really got interesting starting in October.

In consecutive weeks, McDowell played tournaments in Spain, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Los Angeles and Naples, Fla. He won the European Tour event in Spain as well as the unofficial Chevron World Challenge in a playoff over Woods.

After playing in the Shark Shootout in Florida, McDowell had time for a brief trip back to Northern Ireland for the holidays before returning to his Orlando home. He then headed to Hawaii for the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Two weeks later, he was halfway around the world for the Abu Dhabi Championship.

It's tiring just reading all of that, let alone enduring it.

Finally, McDowell took a four-week break, but his game was not the same when he came back. He managed a top-10 finish at the Honda Classic but has not been in contention since.

"Haven't found the middle of the club since, pretty much," he quipped.

McDowell had his moments Friday, especially on the back nine. He birdied the 10th and 11th holes, then made a double-bogey at the 12th after hitting a poor pitch into a greenside bunker. But he rebounded by knocking his tee shot stiff at the par-3 13th. Although he had two more bogeys, he also birdied the 16th and 18th holes.

"I think I've sort of been there this year with the expectations and the pressure and the frustration and all that stuff, and I feel like I've experienced everything there is to experience as a top player in the world this year," McDowell said. "I've had good finishes, I've had the missed cuts, I've had the 80 at Bay Hill, so I've kind of went through the wringer a little bit.

"To be honest with you, I'm really going into this weekend with no expectations because I came here with a new swing, if you like. It's a small variation on the old one, but I was really here just trying to get some confidence, trying to make some good swings, and I'm just so happy the way I've played the last couple of days."

One thing hasn't changed, however: McDowell is keeping up a hectic schedule.

After the Players, he is headed to Spain next week to the Volvo World Match Play Championship, followed by the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. Then it's the Wales Open at Celtic Manor -- site of his winning putt in the Ryder Cup but also where his run to the top began with a victory two weeks before the U.S. Open a year ago.

"I really just had to get back to basics and clear my head and really get back -- get my priorities straight and get back to doing what I wanted to do," he said. "And that was play golf."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.