SAN FRANCISCO -- You could have drawn many conclusions as you watched Jim Furyk (69, one under overall) and playing partner Graeme McDowell (72, one over) tour Olympic Club in the second round of the U.S. Open on Friday.
They are both tenacious, among the last people you’d want to face in Ryder Cup singles, and both are former U.S. Open champions. But if you really thought about it, you couldn’t avoid the question: Weren’t these guys big two years ago?
Furyk won three Tour events and the $10 million FedEx Cup in 2010, while McDowell captured the U.S. Open, two regular Euro tour events, and the Chevron Challenge, where he bested none other than Tiger Woods in a playoff. In his spare time, McDowell clinched the Ryder Cup for Europe.
And then, in 2011 -- crickets. Furyk and McDowell are the latest examples of what Woods has been telling us all year, that golf is a game of ups and downs, and as much as you might feel like you own the game one year, the game might just own you the next. Hangovers: they’re not just for vodka gimlets anymore.
“The things I was trying to work on in my game didn’t work out,” Furyk said Friday of his 2011 season. “The things I tried to work on in my equipment didn’t really work out. And on top of it I putted bad. I had one of the worst putting seasons of all time, for me.”
McDowell didn’t fare much better. He could do no wrong in 2010, but he hit a low point at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. After shooting an opening-round 80, he was seen on the range with a training gizmo attached to his head in the manner of Kevin Costner in Tin Cup.
And yet they are back on their games at Olympic, a course where the ribbon-thin fairways twist and turn and throw tee shots into the rough, and where the firm, slick greens usher golf balls past their intended target.
“I guess that the similarity is that level par is going to be close to winning,” McDowell said when asked if Olympic Club reminded him of Pebble Beach and the 2010 U.S. Open. “The similarity is the breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean there that feels kind of the same, kind of a chill, and the same heaviness to it.
“It’s a different golf course, though,” McDowell added.
It’s also a different year. McDowell is still rebuilding after a 2011 season in which, playing with new equipment, he missed the cut in three of the four majors, and never contended before finishing tied for 14th in the U.S. Open at Congressional. He got into contention but shot a final-round 79 at the Players Championship, and at the Andalucia Masters, where he’d won in 2010, he shot weekend rounds of 81-82.
“My swing wasn’t there,” he told the AP. “My head wasn’t there.”
The lesson, McDowell added: Beware of high expectations.
Luke Donald (72 on Friday, 11 over total) and Rory McIlroy (73, 10 over) are this year’s cautionary tales. A year ago Donald contended at the Masters and became the first man to win the money title on both the PGA and European tours. McIlroy also contended at the Masters and broke through with his sensational win at Congressional. Neither man made as much as a peep on the weekend at Augusta National this year, and neither man will survive the 36-hole cut at Olympic Club.
Furyk missed four straight cuts last summer, including scores of 74-75 at the U.S. Open, and was so despondent over his play that he eagerly awaited the off-season.
“I kind of wanted the season to end so I could sit back and reflect,” he said, “and it took me a couple weeks to identify where I wanted to work on my game, how I wanted to go about doing it, and then I set off and I worked.
“I’ve changed a lot of my equipment for this year,” he added. “I’ve gone [back] to Callaway stuff. I’ve gone to products that spin a lot more, which is what I’ve done most of my career. Those don’t really make the ball go as far as maybe I could possibly hit it, but I feel like I can control the ball better.”
The results have been striking: Furyk lost to Donald in a playoff in Tampa, tied for 11th at Bay Hill, and finished 11th at the Masters. He tied for eighth at Hilton Head the next week and kept right on going, finishing fourth at Colonial and T13 at the Memorial. The 16-time Tour winner has done everything but win this year.
McDowell’s showing this week is more surprising, as he’s coming off missed cuts in Memphis, the Players Championship and the BMW PGA. But there were signs that his game was coming back, like his runner-up finishes at Bay Hill in March and at the Volvo World Match Play Championship in May.
“I've always enjoyed the U.S. Open, even before I won Pebble, I always enjoyed the U.S. Open setups,” said McDowell, who wore a pair of shocking pink pants Friday.
“I have a lot more good years behind me than I probably do ahead of me,” said Furyk, 42, “but I still feel like I’ve got some game.”
After a season of frustration and reflection and far too many weekends off, Furyk and McDowell are back on top, cresting the wave and enjoying the ride.