HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — For all the big moments in Graeme McDowell’s career, his résumé was short on PGA Tour victories.
McDowell relished what he called his first authentic tour win, defeating fellow U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson in a playoff at the RBC Heritage on Sunday.
McDowell’s been at the center of some of golf’s biggest moments, from his rousing triumph at Pebble Beach in 2010 to capturing the winning point for Europe in that year’s Ryder Cup matches. He has six European PGA victories, too, but he hadn’t triumphed in the weekly grind of the world’s top tour.
“This game kicks you more often than it gives you a pat on the back,” McDowell said. “It’s hard to win.”
Not on this day for McDowell, who pushed forward on wind-blown Harbour Town Golf Links when his rivals were moving backward, unnerved by the 20 to 30 mph winds that rattled the course.
He rallied from four strokes down when the day began to take a one-shot lead into the 72nd hole. Then after he made his only bogey of the round to fall into tie with Simpson, two-putted from about 15 feet to make a par on the extra hole that Simpson couldn’t match.
“I guess the weather was what the doctor ordered. I needed that to get close to the leaders,” said McDowell, who earned $1,044,000 for the victory.
McDowell had 69, one of only three scores in the 60s among the 70 who teed off Sunday.
Simpson, the reigning U.S. Open winner, shot 71. He had a chance to win in regulation, but his 22-footer for birdie went 3 feet past and set up the additional hole. “I came in with not too much confidence, but I just stayed true to the process of what we’ve been working on,” Simpson said.
Luke Donald shot 69 to tie for third with Kevin Streelman, who had 72. Jerry Kelly rounded out the top five after his even-par 71.
Charley Hoffman, the 54-hole leader, ballooned to 77 and fell into a tie for sixth with Russell Henley (69) and Chris Stroud (70).
McDowell patted Simpson on the back after the playoff miss and smiled widely as the boats in Calibogue Sound tooted their horns and whistles. Neither McDowell nor Simpson made the cut a week ago at the Masters Tournament, yet bounced back at Harbour Town.
McDowell acknowledged he was frustrated and disappointed after missing the weekend at Augusta National by a shot. If he had made the cut, McDowell wondered if he’d have had the motivation to break through at Harbour Town.
“It’s funny the way things happen,” he said. “I wouldn’t swap this for a top 10 last week.”
The course showed its teeth, winds arcing flagsticks and blowing debris on every hole. Donald backed off his putt on No. 7 when a large leaf tumbled through his line. Crews watered several greens between groups simply to keep balls holding instead of skipping off the wind-swept sod.
Blowers were heard throughout the day, trying to push off leaves, twigs and other tree parts falling everywhere on the course.
The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory for the area, warning of gusts up to 45 mph.
“Extremely difficult,” Donald said of conditions. “Strongest wind I’ve played in all year.”
Few managed the wind better than McDowell, who lurked behind most of the round until striking on the back nine. He made a 28-foot birdie putt on No. 11 to move into a three-way tie for first with Simpson and Hoffman.
McDowell broke the tie on the 16th hole, landing his approach within 8 feet and making the birdie putt. He saved par from the back of the green on the 17th hole, but couldn’t do it a second time on the closing, lighthouse hole at No. 18 for his first bogey in 32 holes to fall back into a tie with Simpson.
Simpson’s chase appeared over when he made three bogeys in a six-hole stretch to fall two shots behind. He steadied himself with a birdie on No. 12 and parred his way to the finish to reach the playoff.
Donald, who’s got two seconds and a third in his past four appearances at Harbour Town, got an early charge going before Hoffman and Simpson hit the course with four birides on his first six holes to draw within two of the lead.
Donald, ranked No. 6 in the world, couldn’t keep the surge going, though. He had birdie chances on the final three holes of the front nine, but came up empty. Bogeys on the 13th and 15th holes end Donald’s run. Still, it was the fourth top-five finish in the last five trips to the RBC Heritage for Donald.