Before his sudden-death playoff, Graeme McDowell found a refuge from chaotic Harbour Town
HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Graeme McDowell was the only golfer in the Harbour Town practice area at 6 p.m. on Sunday. He turned to no one in particular and jokingly said, "Someone get that McDowell off the range."
He wasn't out for a late practice session. The 33-year-old from Northern Ireland had shot a 69 in the final round of the RBC Heritage -- tied for the low round of the day -- and was the leader in the clubhouse at 9-under after opening the day four shots back. But he couldn't begin celebrating just yet.
Webb Simpson stood on the No. 18 tee tied with McDowell at 9-under. If Simpson birdied the final hole, then McDowell would take second-place. If Simpson bogeyed the hole, McDowell would don the tartan jacket presented to each year's champion.
Only one birdie was made on Sunday at the famed closing hole at Harbour Town, compared to eight bogeys -- including McDowell's bogey after he missed a 13-footer for par that would have all but have sealed his victory in regulation.
The sun had long disappeared from view, and the gusting winds created a chill in the air. McDowell had to stay warm. Throughout his round he used his breath to warm his hands, but that wouldn't be enough to prepare him for a potential playoff.
In the chaos outside the scoring tent after he dropped to a tie with Simpson, McDowell was literally surrounded by his caddie, his fiancé, PGA Tour officials, tournament officials and reporters, all while fans screamed for his signature on items ranging from foam fingers to flags.
"Let's go to the range," McDowell said amid the scrum.
Whisked away to the practice area far away from the party that was beginning underneath the red and white lighthouse of No. 18, McDowell reached the driving range where only a few fans were in sight. The loudest noise was the wind whipping through the 16 flags that lined the entrance to the practice area. McDowell went through a typical warm-up routine -- a few iron shots, several more with a wedge, and closed with a driver -- while joking with his caddie between swings.
Too far away to hear the cheers on 18, McDowell listened to his fate play out over a radio that a rules official had placed underneath his bag while he hit balls.
"[Simpson] could make three, he could make five," McDowell said. "Who knows?"
Simpson made four after missing a 25-foot birdie putt for the win in regulation. McDowell blew a kiss to his fiancé, Kristen Stape, as he was whisked back to the No. 18 tee for a sudden-death playoff, his first on the PGA Tour.
"There's no recipe to prepare yourself for those kind of things," McDowell said. "All you know is you need to keep an open mind. I could lose it right there now. I could win it right there now."
On a course that felt and played like a U.S. Open venue on Sunday, McDowell would be facing Simpson, his rival from the 2012 U.S. Open. At the Olympic Club in San Francisco last June, McDowell had a 25-foot birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Simpson, but missed the putt. Simpson had a 25-foot birdie putt on his final hole at Harbour Town to win, but missed, opening the door for McDowell's first PGA Tour title since his victory in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
After winning the playoff against Simpson, McDowell said he was grateful for the chance to redeem his bogey on the 72nd hole.
"You don't often get a second chance very often in this sport," McDowell said.
He made the most of it.