ORLANDO — Graeme McDowell, five strokes behind Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick, has a lot to play for today in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which is a Captain Obvious statement if ever there was one.
There always is a lot to play for in professional golf. Cash (boatloads), World Ranking points, and, also on the PGA Tour, FedEx Cup points, which have become the coins of the realm, if you will.
This year at Bay Hill there is something new. The $9.1 million Arnold Palmer Invitational is a qualifying event for the Open Championship—R&A officials are on the scene—and will offer three spots into the field at Royal Portrush in July. The top three players who finish in the top 10 and ties who are not already exempt earn a place. Currently, those spots, if nothing changes, would go to Aaron Baddeley, Charles Howell III and Luke List.
Baddeley sits T-3 at seven-under 209, while Howell and List are in a large group at 210.
After a third-round 69 at Bay Hill Club’s Championship Course, McDowell is hovering at 212. That is only five shots behind leader Matthew Fitzpatrick, certainly within hailing distance for the Ulsterman, who twice has been runner-up here. But the consolation prize is huge with the Open in his home country and McDowell sitting out the last two Opens.
It was only Tuesday that McDowell learned that Bay Hill provides an avenue to the year’s final major championship, for which he is not qualified after, as he says, “two years of doing basically nothing” on the golf course. Naturally, the native of Northern Ireland, who has a home at nearby Lake Nona as well as a restaurant, Nona Blue, has been thinking about it ever since. And while that is motivation, it doesn’t necessarily improve his mindset.
“I play my best golf in my life when I’m just freewheeling,” said McDowell, 39, who has fallen to 259th in the world. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been freewheeling the last couple of years. I’ve had too much on my mind getting back to where I want to be.
“I play better when there is no pressure on my shoulders. It’s more I don’t like internal pressure. I don’t mind external pressure—give me back nine on Sunday, and I enjoy that. It’s the internal stuff. It’s the needing it too bad badly. I’m good at handling pressure, just not the pressure I put on myself.”
Still recovering from a hand injury he suffered in December hitting balls, McDowell goes off at 12:25 p.m. EDT with Henrik Stenson and has to come up with some magic today to join the field at Royal Portrush, a place he knows well, naturally. A tie among any of the three men in front of him won’t help. He has to beat one of them as well as all others vying for a spot. In the event of a tie for a qualifying place, the player with the higher Official World Golf Ranking earns the Open berth.
An effort akin to his debut at Bay Hill in 2005, when he closed with a 66 to finish second behind Kenny Perry, ought to do it. Winner of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell knows it’s in there. He feels good golf coming on. It’s a matter of responding to that pressure.
“I like the way my game is trending. Long game is good. Short game is in great shape,” said McDowell, who hasn’t played Portrush in at least two years. “A lot of it now is about confidence, but I’m working my way towards doing some better things.”