McDowell comes down from his high, ready to climb

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ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Imagine winning two of golf’s biggest trophies only a couple of months apart. Then, right when it looks as though a dream season can’t get any better, competing against a limited field of stars and beating Tiger Woods on the last day when no one gave you much of a chance.

That’s how it was for Mark O'Meara in 1998.

And that’s why he can appreciate how difficult it was this year for Graeme McDowell to follow up on a blockbuster season.

“I was winding down in my career, so it was a little different,” O'Meara said Monday. “But I know Graeme a little bit. Look, it’s hard to live up to the hype. All of a sudden, you feel like every major you should be in contention. You’re thrust into the limelight. It heightens the expectations that people place on you.

“And sometimes, there’s a little bit of a letdown.”

O'Meara scooped up a career’s worth of magic in 1998 when he birdied the last two holes to win the Masters, and at age 41, became the oldest man to win two majors in one season when he captured the British Open in a playoff at Royal Birkdale. If that wasn’t enough, he went to Wentworth for the World Match Play Championship and wound up facing Woods in the 36-hole final. All square with seven holes remaining _ three of them par 5s _ O'Meara beat him with a birdie on the last hole.

McDowell’s season in 2010 was eerily similar.

He won his first major in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and then topped that with a week in Wales that felt better than a major. The Ryder Cup came down to the final match, and McDowell hit a 6-iron to 15 feet for a birdie on the 16th hole to take the lead and go on to win the cup for Europe.

Wrapping up his season in an 18-man field at Sherwood, he rallied from a four-shot deficit and made a pair of 20-foot birdie putts on the 18th hole to beat Woods in a playoff. No one had ever come from more than two shots behind to beat Woods in any pro tournament.

The encore proved more difficult than McDowell realized.

“No doubt the expectation levels were cranked up,” he said last week at Lake Nona during a corporate day for Ecco golf shoes. “I played like a man who wanted it really, really badly. And you can’t want it so badly that you get in your own way.”

As he looks back on a year in which he had as many top 10s as missed cuts _ seven each _ McDowell wishes he would have taken more time off. He spent the holidays with his family in Northern Ireland, and then flew across two oceans to Kapalua to start the new season. He shot 62 the last day and missed a playoff by one shot, and then he flew halfway around the world to Abu Dhabi and tied for third.

Not a bad start.

Finally, he gave himself a four-week break to recharge and reflect. He’s not sure he accomplished either.

“It was a switched-on break, not a switched-off break, and I think there’s a difference,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between taking two, three, four weeks off in the middle of the season because you never really switch off. And when I did switch back on, things felt different. My swing wasn’t there. My head wasn’t there.”

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