Instead of winning more majors, Graeme McDowell has been focused on qualifying for them.

And instead of enjoying what could have been the prime of his playing days on cruise control, McDowell has had to buckle down simply to keep his career going.

It was nine years ago that the up-and-comer from Northern Ireland donned his grey cardigan on Sunday at Pebble Beach, then held off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els to capture the U.S. Open.

Some might say that victory, combined with a Ryder Cup-clinching performance later in the year, made McDowell's career. What it really did was set the bar high, maybe too high, and set up McDowell to be bombarded by a steady stream of reminders about how hard this game really is.

After climbing to No. 6 in the world on the strength of his brilliant 2010, McDowell finished last year ranked 238th.

"I never really ever said to myself, 'Hey, you know, you won a major championship, you should be better than this,'" he said. "Golf is a fickle game. I took my eye off the ball, it felt like for a second, and a hundred 25-year-old kids came running by me. It's the nature of the beast out here. It's a tough game."

There are signs McDowell, who turns 40 this summer, might be rebounding.

He notched his first victory since 2015 in March in the Dominican Republic — an opposite-field event while the top players were competing at the Match Play Championship.

Last week, he made a 30-foot putt on the final hole of the Canadian Open to secure a spot in the British Open, which will be played next month on his home course in Northern Ireland, Royal Portrush. It will be his first appearance in either the Masters or British Open since 2016. His 10-year exemption to the U.S. Open, where he's missed the cut four of the last six years, runs out after 2020.

Given his struggles, McDowell conceded his biggest goal for this year, other than making it to Royal Portrush, was simply to keep his PGA Tour card, which he accomplished with the win in March.

"When you start kind of ... thinking, 'I could be ready for the second stage of my life and my second career,' it's a conversation I had with myself middle of last year," McDowell said. "And I started to realize I love being out here. And the vision of it going away, playing the way I was playing, it was going to go away quite soon."

McDowell believes his game is returning thanks to an epiphany of sorts: that instead of resenting golf and wrestling with it, he should embrace the game, and all the challenges it presents.

On Thursday and Friday, McDowell, as a former champion, has a marquee tee time alongside Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. He concedes that three or four months ago, the prospect of such a pairing felt intimidating. But all of the sudden, he feels as though he belongs again.

"It's certainly been a slower process than I imagined getting the confidence back. But it is coming," McDowell said. "And I come into this week feeling very good about my game, looking forward to the challenge of teeing it up with two great players, and trying to dissect this golf course and get myself in position to hopefully be able to compete this weekend."