My round with Graeme McDowell

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Graeme McDowell may have just lifted one of the hottest titles in golf - The US Open - but not so long ago he was doing battle with none other than Golf World's Jock Howard! This how the round unfolded...

It is one of those cold, crisp, blue-sky mornings when all is still, except for a couple of sky larks out for their morning flutter. The Gaza Crisis and the Credit Crunch seem a million miles away and all appears to be well with the world.

On such a morning, I guess it should be possible to think of things I’d rather be doing than playing golf with Ryder Cup star, Graeme McDowell, at his home course, Royal Portrush; but nothing comes to mind.

The Dunluce course at Portrush, for those who don’t know it, is a national treasure. It held the 1951 Open, which Max Faulkner won. It is arguably the finest example in the world of old-fashioned golf at its very, very best; quirky, charming and eccentric, all in the same breath. For a town so small, Portrush has been the home to an extraordinary array of golfing greats, from Rhona Adair to Fred Daly and now Graeme McDowell. When you play it, it goes without saying that you have to be very accurate off the tee; and around every corner there is a surprise, like unfashionable ‘drive and pitch’ holes, most famously at the 5th.

Even though as a professional McDowell has lived in Cardiff (“I had a girlfriend there”) and Manchester (“in the six months I leased an apartment, I was probably only in it for nine nights”) Portrush has always been home to him. It’s where he was brought up, where all his family live and where he wants his ashes to be spread (“on the 5th hole please”).

He now has a house (“an apartment on the beach”) which is “a couple of miles as the crow flies” from the 1st tee. “But, I’m very much a home bird still” he says, “and I spend a lot of time at my Mum’s, because of her home cooking. Living here is not ideal from a travel point of view, but it’s somewhere I can come back to and be myself; and really relax.”

The McDowells don’t own Royal Portrush and yet when playing it you’re almost bound to bump into one of them. As Graeme clatters in his spikes across the asphalt with me from his Range Rover Sport towards the 1st tee, he tells me that both his younger brother, Gary, and his uncle, Eul Loughrey, are on the greenstaff. “We’ll probably see them later,” he says. We didn’t, but when we reach the 16th green, a man of about 60 appears, who turns out to be Mr McDowell, Graeme’s Dad. He is gripping a couple of rather old looking clubs.

“Just off to the practice ground to work on my game,” he tells us.

Just before he disappears over the dunes, I want him to tell me when he knew his son was headed to the big time. “Well, in his teens he won five times in a year over here, so I knew he had something. Then, when he went to university in Alabama he was the best collegiate golfer in America and broke a lot of the records which Tiger and Luke Donald had established…” And with that he was off.

“I’m going to try to get him on Augusta this year,” says Graeme. “To play Augusta with him would be just perfect. The only time I have played the Masters (2005) he caddied for me in the Par-3 Tournament.”

As the world number 35, Graeme is making only his second appearance at the Masters this April and is drooling at the prospect.

“That place is a bit like walking into a church for me,” he says. “There are very few places on this earth (apart from where we are now) that make me feel quite like I do when I’m there; maybe the 1st tee at St Andrews and the 7th and 8th holes at Pebble Beach, but that’s about it. It’s hard to describe really. In 2005, I three-putted four times in the first 10 holes in my first round, playing with Ben Crenshaw, arguably the best putter there has ever been. He was like an artist on the greens, just unbelievable. I ended up missing the cut by one and was gutted.

“On the Wednesday, my practice round took a long time and I wanted to play in the Par-3 Tournament, so I walked off at the 15th, crossed the 17th green and watched Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Charles Coody and the US Amateur Champion at the time, Ryan Moore, walk onto the 18th tee. Jackie [Nicklaus] Jnr, who was caddying for his Dad, saw me watching and said: ‘Why don’t you come and play the last with us?’

“So I did. The sand at Augusta takes a bit of getting used to, so when Player went into the right front bunker I said: ‘Mr Player, Mr Player, I’m really struggling in the sand. Can you give me a couple of tips?’ He kind of waved me over and got me to strengthen my left hand a little bit to keep the loft on the club. The pin was at the back and he had about a 40-foot shot. He splashed it out, one bounce and in! First shot! I couldn’t believe it, laughed and muttered something stupid like ‘Mr Player, how silly of me; thank you very much’.”

We are now on the 5th, known as ‘White Rocks’, out by the fantastic beach and the ocean, where some mad Irishman is out doing a bit of January surfing. McDowell has hit every drive so far long and straight, a feature of his game, and he does it again here; leaving himself a little flip onto the green. I wanted to talk Valhalla, to find out if Graeme thought mistakes were made.

“It was an incredible week,” he says, “one that I’ll never forget. I suppose looking back on it you could argue that our seven-hour practice round on Tuesday and our three-and-a-half hour practice rounds (for nine holes) on Wednesday and Thursday may have been a little bit of a mistake. But, it’s very difficult, because you can’t go out there and not sign any autographs. It was tournament policy not to sign on the course, but we were trying to get make friends with the crowd. I think we could have done with a couple more assistant captains, a couple more pairs of eyes helping the guys out. But, the team morale was fantastic. I will never forget Jim Furyk coming up to me after my Saturday fourballs match and saying that was the best match he had ever played in. And Olazabal’s impromptu speech on Saturday night had us all in tears. It was a really emotional call to arms. And we loved the way the singles order looked on Saturday night. Faldo had little to do with that really; we as a team picked the order. There is no doubt the Americans did a fantastic job.

“A few of the guys have said to me he wasn’t a great captain. They’ve told me that if I play under blah/blah/blah then I’ll understand that he wasn’t inspiring. But, Nick is just not that kind of guy. He’s not an emotional guy. But he’s still a great champion and it was still an honour to play under him.”

“Did you feel that way when he asked which part of Ireland you were from?” I interjected.

“I think he got a little nervous, didn’t he? I hope that wasn’t a joke because it was a bit insensitive if it was.”

When we reach the famous 14th, Calamity Corner, McDowell hits an exquisite mid-iron right over the pin, to a few feet. This is such a tough par-3 that during the ’51 Open Bobby Locke played for the little hollow left of the green in all four rounds (getting up and down each time) rather than taking on the pin; and yet Portrush’s latest son has no fear.

“I’ve hit driver into this hole loads of times,” he says.

I am keen to know why someone so highly-ranked has never had a top-10 finish in a major championship.

“That’s something I’m aiming to change this year,” he says. “In fact Karl Morris, my psychologist, was down here yesterday, and that is one of my goals for 2009, to compete in the big events and to be in contention coming down the stretch.”

In the last three years, McDowell has led the Open Championship twice after the first round (remember how he thanked a punter in 2006 for giving him a tip on the eve of the Championship?) and yet never really finished it off.

“I’ve had half a dozen chances now to do it and I haven’t got it done, but I know why.”

“Why?”

“I haven’t been physically and mentally tough enough. I haven’t realized that majors are different weeks. They are physically and mentally more demanding than normal weeks. By the time Saturday and Sunday comes along, you’ve got to have something left in the tank. You can’t have taken it all out of yourself earlier in the week. Your short game has got to get better and better as the week goes on, because the pins get tougher and the greens get firmer and faster. I’ve played in quite a few now and I understand what it takes to win one of these now I think.”

“I was going well at St Andrews in 2005,” he says, “and was 5-under par for the day on Saturday which got me into the top-10; but then I had a little bit of a flirt with the Road Bunker. I think I had an 8 actually, and shot 68 on the Sunday to finish 11th.”

Flirting is probably not something Graeme needs to do at the moment. Despite the fact that he is one of the world’s most eligible bachelors he is not looking to settle down at the moment. And, despite the fact that his Ryder Cup captain, Nick Faldo, announced to hundreds of millions of people at Valhalla last September that he was on the look out for a wife, finding one is not at the top of his priority list.

“Are you still single, eligible and not dating any one?” I ask, hoping to put him off a tricky, left-to-right 5-footer.

“All of the above,” he replies. “There are no signs of a Mrs McDowell yet, despite my captain’s best efforts. I felt like I was on Blind Date at the opening ceremony. No. It’s tough to fit women into my schedule right now. I’m definitely much more a career orientated person right now than I am about relationships. But, you know, hopefully she’s out there somewhere. I’m not really in any mad rush to find her, but …”

“Does she have to be Irish?”

“No. There is no set nationality.”

Certainly, there was little sign of her as we shook hands after a pint of the black stuff and made our separate ways out from the car park.