PEBBLE BEACH, CALIFORNIA | When Graeme McDowell, the last man to win the US Open at Pebble Beach, rolled in a 30-foot putt on the 72nd green of the RBC Canadian Open at the Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Ontario last Sunday afternoon, he wasn’t the only one to be pleased. His gutsy performance brought a great deal of pleasure to a considerable number of people who admire the Northern Irishman for his golf, his geniality and the success he has had in his professional career.
It meant that he had finished in a share of eighth place, which earned him some world ranking points as well as the not insignificant matter of nearly one quarter of a million US dollars.
It was further evidence of a revival in his form following a victory in a tournament in the Dominican Republic in March and a reminder that he, who won that US Open in 2010 and later that year delivered the point that won Europe the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in Wales, was not quite ready to ease into comfortable semi-retirement with a growing family and two successful restaurants in Florida.
A caddie once described McDowell, 39, as having “balls of steel.” Now, sinking that putt across the green when he knew that if he didn’t he would probably not finish tied eighth, he had demonstrated just that characteristic once again.
By doing so he was repaying some of the faith in him showed by Ken Comboy, his faithful caddie, who has worked for McDowell for years, many of which were good, some of which, more recently, were less so. Indeed the man who had once been ranked as high as fourth in the world had tumbled to 257th at the start of the week of his victory in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship three months earlier.
“I think four or five months ago if you’d told me I’d be on the first tee at Pebble Beach with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson this week at the US Open, I am not sure I would have believed you,” McDowell said Tuesday. “Considering where my game was I would have been very intimidated. There is no doubt about that. I think that in the past three or four months with some good finishes and putting myself under the gun again has got my competitive juices flowing once again and raised my confidence. Confidence is one of those very fragile things. It certainly goes away a lot quicker than it comes back.”
As a man who likes a celebration and doesn’t need to search far to find one, McDowell may not be in the same class as Darren Clarke or Ernie Els but he never needs a second invitation to celebrate.
Perhaps as important as these triumphs is the fact that McDowell had finished high enough in Canada to earn one of the three places available to players not otherwise qualified for the Open at Royal Portrush next month. When you realise that McDowell grew up close to this course in Northern Ireland, played on its adjoining golf course as a child, that his brother works at Royal Portrush now and that his former caddie Ricky Elliott, who comes from Portrush, is now the caddie of Brooks Koepka, then the significance of getting into the Open becomes apparent. At Hamilton, Ontario, not one but many circles had been squared.
The flight from Canada across the US to California on Monday was a noisy and joyful one. The plane might have been painted green for all it meant to some of its Irish passengers. Rory McIlroy had won the tournament after a series of ever-decreasing rounds, a 67 and a 66 to start with and then closing rounds of 64 and 61. Shane Lowry, a fellow Irishman, had finished joint second in the event. And then McDowell assured himself of a place at Royal Portrush.
As a man who likes a celebration and doesn’t need to search far to find one, McDowell may not be in the same class as Darren Clarke or Ernie Els but he never needs a second invitation to celebrate. “(On the plane) we had a couple of glasses of wine and certainly enjoyed ourselves,” McDowell said. “It was a good weekend for Irish golfers, a Sunday night that felt as though it needed a little bit of celebrating.”
Northern Ireland has been starved of sport during the political troubles that afflicted its recent history. Next month’s Open will give golf spectators in a part of the United Kingdom known for its enthusiasm for sport a chance to acknowledge the extraordinary success of their own in major championships in recent years – McDowell (2010 US Open), Clarke (2011 Open) and McIlroy (2011 US Open, 2012 and 2014 PGA Championship and 2014 Open).
For months, McDowell had been doing what he does, which is to play golf to a high level, yet knowing that he needed to improve if he was to earn a place in the Open. It made him feel, he said repeatedly, as though “… I had a 300-pound gorilla on my back.” He was determined to do all he could to play in the Open. If all else failed he would cross the Atlantic and try to qualify at St Anne’s Old Links at the beginning of July. “Am I really going to do this?” he would say to himself. The answer was, yes.
At least, it was yes until last Sunday when one glorious putt capped a week-long performance of sufficient standard to get the “300-pound gorilla” off his back.
“Kenny (Comboy) had his phone out looking at the leaderboard as we were going up the last trying to work out what was going on,” McDowell said. “He said to me, ‘I think a (bogey) 5 might be good enough so don’t get too cute with this chip shot. Let’s not make a 6.’ So I played the chip safely and left myself a pretty nasty little putt. My first thought was ‘try not to three-putt.’
“Then I had a good look at the putt and I liked what I saw. When it went in it was a huge relief. If I’d made 5 there and missed out that would have hurt.
“To have the Open ticket punched now means I can focus 100 percent on the US Open, go home to the Irish (Open) and Scottish (Open) and focus on those. This gives me a little breathing room to concentrate on my game and be more competitive because I feel like I am playing well. One of my goals is to get myself back in there on the back nine on Sunday afternoon in the not too distant future. I’d love another run at the top of the game and see if maybe I can get another big one before it’s all said and done.”
When McDowell, who shot 2-under-par 69 in Thursday’s opening round, won at Pebble Beach in 2010 he was wearing a grey cardigan. Not quite as bright as Tiger Woods’s red but a lucky colour all the same. “I’m not sure it is going to be cold enough to wear a cardigan again this week,” McDowell said. “I have one on the way. I think Peter Millar is sending me one as we speak so I’ll have one waiting in the wings for old time’s sake. You never know.”
Graeme McDowell watches his approach to the 10th green during the first round of the US Open. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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