On the morning after his Masters debut in 2005, Graeme McDowell and his parents were preparing to go their separate ways. While Kenny and Marian headed for Charlotte (North Carolina) to catch a plane en route to their home in Portrush, Northern Ireland, their son was driving southeast to the Verizon Heritage at Harbour Town.
It was a bittersweet moment which prompted Marian, in the way of caring mothers, to wipe tears from her eyes. “That’s when I told them it was the first of many weeks they would have, coming to watch me play on the big stage,” said the 25-year-old with the quiet assurance of someone who knew precisely where he was going. “I want them to be part of what I’m doing, but on their own terms.”
Five years on, while Kenny stood on the 18th green of Pebble Beach on U.S. Open Sunday, listening to his son make an acceptance speech as the newly crowned champion, Marian called him on his cell phone. She was in Spain on holiday and sobbed with boundless joy at her son’s achievement.
And there were more tears in Portrush Wednesday, when the McDowell family shared an extraordinary homecoming. Kenny and Graeme had arrived from the U.S. via London, and Marian was home from Spain, while younger son Gary, a scratch amateur, hadn’t far to travel as a member of the greenkeeping staff at Royal Portrush.
It was arguably the proudest day in the 63-year history of Rathmore Golf Club, which Kenny humorously refers to as “the working-man’s version of Royal Portrush.” Constitutionally it is limited to 155 members who can play both the Valley and Dunluce courses by arrangement with their landlords. And local hero, Fred Daly, winner of the 1947 Open Championship, was a one-time captain there.
Drinks on the house has become a something of a Rathmore ritual after McDowell’s tournament wins. “This round looks like being seriously expensive,” said McDowell with a broad grin, surveying the hundreds of well-wishers. “But it’s the least I can do. This is where it all began for me – a long journey which culminated at Pebble.”
Monday morning, in a plush hotel on Cannery Row near Pebble, McDowell walked around the lobby, clinging to the U.S. Open trophy. Passers-by looked bemused. Some were bold enough to have their photograph taken with the new champion who, in a U.S. Open T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, was dressed almost exactly as Padraig Harrington was on the morning after his PGA triumph at Oakland Hills in August 2008.
Meeting father and son in such circumstances brought to mind some remarkable milestones in McDowell’s golfing journey. I remembered June 2001, when he departed Ljunghusens outside Malmo, Sweden, as Ireland’s best player in the European Amateur Team Championship. Less than 14 months later, on a return visit, he achieved his breakthrough victory on the European Tour, in the Scandinavian Masters in Stockholm.
In between, there was unprecedented success on the U.S. college circuit as a scholarship student at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, setting standards which eclipsed the previous efforts of none other than Tiger Woods. Prior to that, he had left his stamp on his home scene as Close and South of Ireland champion at either end of the country in Millennium Year, one at Royal Portrush and the other at Lahinch.
And it all started so modestly. At £1 (sterling) a round, Kenny had visions of being doomed to penury in his attempts at finding a pitch-and-putt outlet for his two young sons. Then Dai Stevenson, the Portrush professional, offered him a deal: at a fee of £10, they could play The Himalayas for the season.
“When Graeme and Gary played 33 rounds in the first week, I considered it money well spent,” chuckled the proud father, who earned a modest wage as a technician in the local, Coleraine Institute and Marian managed a department store. Graeme was then 9 and The Himalayas was the charming little nine-hole, pitch-and-putt course attached to Royal Portrush where, incidentally, he joined an elite group of honorary life members in 2003.
Having earlier bought them a house, Graeme insisted his hard-working parents should retire two years ago, after he won at Loch Lomond. And they remain charmingly unaffected by the fame and wealth. “I’m the golfing duffer in our family,” said Kenny, a very useful eight-handicapper.
Then, of his absent wife, he went on: “Marian doesn’t really understand golf, you know. For instance, if some player gets a birdie and Graeme gets a bogey, she’ll want to know ‘Why did Graeme do that? Why didn’t he do what the other boy did?’” And when he laughed, you knew it was with affection rather than any sense of criticism.
With that, he turned to a photograph of son with trophy on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. “That’s a cracker,” he said. “Lovely.” But instantly, as if to illustrate how even small slights can hurt, he added: “See this. The official U.S. Open programme. There’s not a word about Graeme in there. Imagine. Not a word.” One suspects there will be no such oversights from now on.