America falls for Ulster's unlikely hero
Three weeks ago, Graeme McDowell sat down with his manager and decided the 2010 US Open may not be for him. Yesterday, he sat down with his manager and decided David Letterman was not for him.
Yes, life has immeasurably changed for the Ulsterman. But only yesterday did he reveal how close he came to missing the major that has earned him golfing immortality.
"A shot here and there and I wouldn't have been in the Pebble Beach field," he said, before explaining a quite giddying scenario. Going into last month's BMW PGA Championship he was 50th in the world rankings, knowing that in the following Monday's cut-off point only the top 50 would earn a berth at the most scenic setting in sport. If he was nudged out, he could always tee it up in the 36-hole qualifier at Walton Heath that very Monday. Yet after finishing in a tie for 28th, McDowell sat in the Wentworth clubhouse and made his choice.
"If I don't get in it's not the end of my summer," he told his adviser Conor Ridge. So he scratched himself from the next day's shootout and off he went to bed. "I didn't want to think what was happening in America," he said.
What was happening was that Brian Gay and Scott Verplank were coming to the 18th at the Byron Nelson Classic with the chance of leapfrogging him in the rankings. If they both made birdies, McDowell would not have been celebrating becoming the first European winner of the US Open in 40 years. But they didn't and he is. "I woke up early the next morning, checked the rankings on the computer and thought, 'OK, I've got the US Open,'" he said. "Little did I know. Wow!"
Wow indeed. It was an exclamation he was to hear plenty of as he jumped on to a private jet here in Monterey yesterday morning and made his champagne-fuelled way to Los Angeles. He had opted to appear on the Jay Leno show rather than Letterman. For who the talk-show host would encounter was an erudite young man known as G-Mac with an inspiring story of toils landing the spoils. Here was the American dream lived out on the north coast of Ireland.
"I had a pretty humble upbringing," said the 30-year-old. "I had very hard-working parents, both worked full time. I was introduced to the game of golf at eight years old. I was very lucky to grow up in such a great golfing neck of the woods up there in Portrush. I was in love with the game from the word go. I love everything about the sport. Myself and my younger brother [Gary], who's a scratch player, we did nothing but play for the next 10 years. My dad drove me hard, through my amateur career, up through American college golf and into the pro ranks.
"I was certainly under no illusions. I was going to have to work for anything and everything I achieved in my life. I was well-behaved in school and my grades were good. I always worked hard, always practised hard. I definitely served my apprenticeship to be here right now."
His father was there on the 18th green when the glory was finally confirmed. As Kenny McDowell and his son hugged, the US networks poured the treacle over a scene made for Father's Day. It was corny but irresistible and everyone joined in with the emotion.
Nobody cried more than Ridge. "Graeme knows he's not the best player out here nor the biggest hitter," said Ridge. "But you won't find anyone with a bigger heart."
In the build-up to Pebble, Tony Jacklin, the last European to lift the US Open Trophy way back in 1970,said: "It isn't just talent, it's the bits you can't see that do the winning; the heart and the mind." Well, California saw McDowell's heart and mind on Sunday. On one of the US Open's most demanding final days he led for the last 15 holes. And he had to do so with the horrific images of Dustin Johnson's meltdown still fresh in his psyche.
But the pressure on him did not stop there, did not stop with witnessing the leader blow a three-shot lead with five dropped shots in just two holes on his way to a wretched 82. All the names then lined up behind McDowell; Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods. Gallantly he held the superstars at bay, keeping his head in the carnage as they dropped theirs. In the event, it was Gregory Havret, an inspired Frenchman, who ran him closest. "No disrespect to Gregory but that was a surprise," admitted McDowell.
Like everyone he knew the names of the Pebble's past US Open champions and expected the cream to rise to the stop of Stillwater Cove. It didn't work out that way and so it was little McDowell who joined the legends. While the emulation of Jacklin is humbling enough - and, indeed, of Fred Daly the only other Northern Irishman to win a major - it is the inclusion on that course's roll of honour which truly makes the spine shiver. "Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods and, erm, me," said McDowell. "I'm not quite sure if I belong on that list. But, hey, I'm there."
He's other places, too. Up to the 13th in the world. Up to the second in the Ryder Cup rankings with his spot at Celtic Manor assured. In the immediate future McDowell will remain Stateside, fulfilling his champion's obligations, entering the households of America. Later in the week he will return home and then he will have a choice to make. The French Open or the pub? Paris or Portrush? Expect the latter to prevail.
"There might be a few beverages consumed from this trophy in my local, the Harbour Bar," he said.
But when he does there will be an inevitable golfing hangover to settle. There are already whispers in America of a fluke winner, of a player who shot a 74, the highest final round of a major champion in 25 years. Let them whisper. The fact is the home nations have enjoyed five different winners on the PGA Tour this season, while previously the best they could boast was one. And now they have the title America cherishes the most. "Careers are defined by majors," said McDowell. "And mine is off and running."
Original source: London Independent