Updated: January 23, 2012, 7:29 PM ET

Graeme McDowell better prepared for 2012

Harig By Bob Harig
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- You can't miss the photo, the one just outside the locker room back home at Lake Nona, a thrilling scene of triumph and unabashed joy that Graeme McDowell says depicts the highlight of his golf career.

[+] EnlargeGraeme McDowell
Stuart Franklin/Getty ImagesAfter a whirlwind 2010 in which he raised both the U.S. Open and Ryder Cup trophies, Graeme McDowell was left wondering what happened during a 2011 campaign in which he travelled all over the globe with little time to rest.

Interestingly, it is not a photo from 2010 at Pebble Beach, where he won the U.S. Open and hoisted the trophy with his father by his side.

It is instead, a few months later, at Celtic Manor in Wales, where the picture says it all, McDowell's arms raised, and European fans on the hill in the background deliriously cheering. McDowell had just holed the birdie putt that would prove to be the difference at the 2010 Ryder Cup, a memory beautifully captured.

"It's the greatest moment of my life from a sporting point of view," McDowell said. "Pebble Beach doesn't even come close to that, as far as how I felt emotionally. Of course for self-satisfaction and achievement, Pebble Beach is my best achievement.

"As far as feeling elated on the golf course, the Ryder Cup is the greatest moment for me. It was sort of major-esque. It was like picking off two major moments."

And perhaps it explains why McDowell has never quite recovered, or certainly not excelled to the same level. Yes, there was that victory over Tiger Woods to close out a dream year at the Chevron World Challenge, but since then, McDowell has struggled to regain the same form, the same magic. Expectations have been raised, and meeting them proved difficult.

A new season begins for him at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where a slew of the game's best will convene this week in the Middle East. McDowell is determined to learn from the lessons of too much golf and not enough rest that plagued him in 2011, even as he embarks on another worldwide schedule in another Ryder Cup year.

At a corporate day last month for Ecco shoes at Lake Nona, where the Northern Irishman makes his U.S. base, McDowell was upbeat about this year. He was coming off his final tournament at the Dubai World Championship, looking forward to some true down time, and excited about his prospects in 2012.

"It was unrealistic what I was trying to achieve," McDowell said of his 2011 season. "You can't win every week. Fifth is a hell of a week. In 2010 I felt like I could win every week. So it's been a great learning curve. I learned a lot about myself. I feel like I've put a really good, positive spin on what [had been] a frustrating year, no doubt. But I feel really good. I'm excited to get going."

It's not as if McDowell really went anywhere. He is ranked 13th in the world and in 29 worldwide tournaments, McDowell had eight top-10 finishes.

But it was the three missed cuts at major championships and a few instances of imploding when he was in contention -- the Players Championship and Wales Open -- that had McDowell looking for answers. In official events, he had as many missed cuts as top 10s (seven each) and made it through just two events in the FedEx Cup.

"The good times in golf and bad times in golf are so different," McDowell said. "As golfers, we're unbelievably good at berating ourselves when things go wrong. We're not so good at giving ourselves credit when things go right. And there's something to be learned there."

One thing McDowell likely needs to learn is to somehow figure out a way to cut back on an amazingly hectic schedule. This year, at least, he had no early January tournament to play as he did a year ago when he played at Kapalua and then ventured all the way to Abu Dhabi just two weeks later.

But the end of 2011 was interesting nonetheless. His journey took him from his adopted home in Orlando back to Northern Ireland before embarking on tournaments in Spain, China, Singapore, Japan, China, South Africa and the U.A.E. -- in consecutive weeks. McDowell estimated he was in the air for 80 hours during that stretch.

And yet, by the end he felt fine.

That was seven weeks ago, and a new season is upon McDowell, with a different kind of expectations.

Phil's schedule

Phil Mickelson will no doubt get some grief because he will skip the WGC-Accenture Match Play next month, but when you look at the entire early-season schedule, it is difficult to find fault.

Mickelson made his debut at the Humana Challenge, his first appearance at the tournament since 2007. He continues with this week's Farmers Insurance Open followed by the Waste Management Phoenix Open, AT&T Pebble Beach and the Northern Trust Open.

Even if a family vacation during the week of the Match Play were not the reason for skipping, it is hard to ask a player to go six straight weeks -- as Mickelson would have to do, and as he did last year, when the Humana Challenge was the first tournament of his season.

Skip one? Well, which one? Lefty likes all of these tournaments he is about to play, and he's won all of them, too. As much as it hurts to lose a top player from a WGC (one in which Mickelson has never had much success), it is also good to see one support the rank-and-file tournaments.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.


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