By Gary Van Sickle
March 24, 2005

Graeme McDowell met up with fellow Northern Ireland star Darren Clarke on the putting green before Sunday's final round of the Bay Hill Invitational.

"Play well," Clarke told him, "and we'll have a practice round together at Sawgrass."

McDowell, 25, did just that, shooting the day's low score, a 6-under-par 66, that may have been the most important round of his life. It enabled him to tie Vijay Singh for second place and essentially got him into this week's Players Championship and probably next month's Masters. McDowell was 52nd in the world rankings last week coming into Bay Hill. The top 50 get into the Players Championship, and McDowell moved up to 38th after his finish. The top 50 after the Players Championship qualify for the Masters, so McDowell is almost certainly in there now, too.

"I've been aware for a few months now what's going on with my world rankings," McDowell said. "When the cutoff comes for the Masters, it's going to be a big weight off my mind. I can go back to concentrating on my schedule and thinking about winning golf tournaments instead of trying to get up in the world rankings, which has been my main focus for a few months. I'm looking forward to it. I've looked forward all my life to play at Sawgrass."

It was a big day for McDowell. NBC's Johnny Miller called him "the best player under 30 that most Americans probably haven't heard of" during Sunday's telecast, and McDowell's probably yet another reason for dismay for followers of the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He's a future star.

McDowell's performance on the weekend at Bay Hill was definitely a scene-stealer. While Singh dueled with Kenny Perry and provided the primary drama while regaining the No. 1 world ranking with his runner-up finish, McDowell was the new blip on golf's radar screen.

McDowell, a college golf star at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, came from left field this year and has basically played his way into the elite level of professional golf. Toward the end of last season, once McDowell cracked the top 100 in the world rankings, he considered playing a few more late-season events to chase a top-50 finish and make the Masters but wisely elected to take time off instead and prepare for this year. The decision has paid off. He already has three top-20 finishes on the PGA Tour this year.

"At the end of the day, my schedule is going to be good, regardless," McDowell said. "I already had three majors pretty much guaranteed and plenty of starts here in the States. The Masters would be a dream come true. I've watched that tournament since I was a boy. It's the pinnacle of the golf world, really. I've got experience in a couple of majors -- the Open and the PGA last year. I'll obviously have the U.S. Open at Pinehurst this year. I feel like I'm playing great golf and I'm a much better player than last year."

McDowell ended up playing at UAB because a friend of his was on the team, and that's how he ended up getting recruited. Now he has firmly established himself on the American tour, and in America. McDowell won $440,000 for his second-place tie and while the money was secondary to what the finish did for him, he was pleased because he had just purchased a house in Orlando at Lake Nona Golf Club. "This will probably help pay for the mortgage," he joked.

Meanwhile, it's on to the Stadium Course at Sawgrass and his first Players Championship. It's a course he thinks he already has a feel for, thanks to playing video games with Nintendo golf.

"I suppose Sawgrass takes a bit of knowing," he said. "I walked 12 holes there once with Darren Clarke and his manager, Chubby Chandler. I probably shot 57 or something stupid there on Nintendo. It's a bit easy, that game."

The real game, the real course, isn't that easy. And it's way more exciting.

"The 17th hole will be a lot of fun," McDowell said as he headed for his car in the Bay Hill parking lot as darkness fell Sunday night. "I may go straight out and hit a shot there when I arrive."

After Tiger Woods regained the No. 1 world ranking, which Vijay Singh took back over the weekend, I wrote that it was premature to declare Tiger all the way back until he played on a difficult golf course with rough. Woods had trouble finding fairways, didn't take advantage of the par 5s the way he usually does and overall was a little off his game.

Two memorable shots were his opening tee ball on Thursday, when he popped up a 3-wood on No. 1, a shot that traveled just 198 yards, according to Shotlink, the PGA Tour's measuring device. Saturday, he was making a bit of a move into contention when he hooked a drive way left on the ninth hole onto the range at Bay Hill, out of bounds. Every golfer could relate to his reaction - -he disgustedly reached for another ball from caddie Steve Williams almost immediately, knowing that shot was lost.

"Well, no one's dead, I didn't kill anybody," Woods joked Sunday after his 74-72 finish left him in 23rd place and No. 2 in the world rankings. "A couple of people got hit but they were all right, they bounced back up. It was a frustrating week. I didn't really have it. ... I was kind of surprised that I was struggling as much as I was this week.

"But hey, the week's over with. I've got three days of practice to get ready for the Players Championship."

When Arnold Palmer and USGA president Fred Ridley announced plans to double the size of the USGA's Golf House museum in Far Hills, N.J., by building the Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History, the news guaranteed that golf will never have one true historical Hall of Fame, the way baseball, football and basketball do.

The PGA Tour tried to put one together at the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., but the news that Palmer would take his barn-load of artifacts from Latrobe and move them into a new facility at USGA headquarters was a blow for the World Golf Village. Ironically, the Hall currently has a new Palmer exhibit on display.

Golf's history will be forever split, apparently. There's the World Golf Hall of Fame, which includes the LPGA. Jack Nicklaus built his own museum in Columbus, Ohio, on the Ohio State University campus, but it apparently is a big money-loser and there are rumors that Nicklaus may be hoping to donate it to the college to stop the financial drain. The PGA of America has its own artifacts, Ben Hogan's items are shared between Colonial Country Club and Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, the USGA has its own museum and now Palmer will go in with it.

The Palmer section of Golf House will more than double the size of the USGA's current museum. Politically, however, it's a big blow to the World Golf Hall of Fame folks.

The fastest finisher at Bay Hill was probably Retief Goosen, who bounced back from an ugly opening 78 with a birdie barrage. He shot 67-68-70. He made seven birdies in his second round and kept moving up, finally finishing fourth.

"The first nine holes was a bit of a joke," Goosen said. "I don't know what happened."

He joked that he was thinking about not showing up for the second round, which he didn't get to begin until Saturday morning due to rain delays, because he'd started so poorly.

"I knew I could play better than that," he said. "I had to come back and prove myself a little bit. We've got important tournaments coming up. I'm working on a few things and hopefully I'll be ready for Augusta."

Goosen decided to add the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta, held the week before the Masters, to his schedule because the similarities of those greens to the Masters will be good practice.

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