G-Mac and Wee-Mac can hit Augusta like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid
Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell seem destined to one day duel it out for a Green Jacket over the hallowed fairways of Augusta, writes Karl MacGinty
WHEN the gates open on another Masters Week at Augusta National next Monday morning, tens of thousands of people will surge like a human flood across the most fabled ground in golf and settle at their favourite vantage points.
Nobody is allowed to run at Augusta National. It's forbidden, along with mobile phones, periscopes and barracking, under a stringently-enforced code of conduct which helps ensure "decorum and good etiquette" are maintained at all times.
Just as well too.
There's such wide-eyed excitement among the patrons -- they are not called 'fans' here -- as they teem through the security checkpoints, flow down past the huge queue forming outside Augusta's cavernous concession store and stream across the first fairway, it wouldn't take much to incite a full-scale cavalry charge.
Welcome to the greatest theme park in sport. For the golf enthusiast, Augusta National in Masters week is Disney and Universal rolled into one. It's an enchanted place where unforgettable adventures occur and sporting immortality is achieved.
Seve Ballesteros brilliantly claimed Europe's first victory at the Masters in 1980, sparking a remarkable chain reaction which would yield 11 Green Jackets by 1999 as Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Jose Maria Olazabal drew confidence and inspiration from the legendary Spaniard.
Ballesteros and Olazabal also forged a formidable partnership at the Ryder Cup, underpinning an era of near-domination by Europe and helping convert the biennial matches with the US into a veritable goldmine.
This, in turn, has driven the growth of the European Tour into a pan-global entity, which today boasts the top four players in the world; Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Luke Donald and Graeme McDowell, and has replaced the USA as the dominant force in golf's elite top-50.
In recalling the four victories shared evenly by Seve and Ollie at Augusta and the enormity of their contribution to Europe's cause at the Ryder Cup, one almost hesitates to mention the burgeoning partnership of McDowell and Rory McIlroy in the run-up to Masters week.
Yet, despite their relative inexperience in this august arena, these two gifted Ulstermen could one day soon go head-to-head for the Green Jacket down the famous back stretch at Augusta National on Masters Sunday.
Who knows, that day might come tomorrow week.
SUCCESS AROUND AMEN CORNER FOR MAGICAL MCILROY
Ireland has never been so strongly represented at the Masters, with three-time Major Champion Padraig Harrington completing this island's formidable three-pronged assault on Augusta.
Yet with G-Mac and Wee-Mac firmly ensconced in the world top-10, it's patently clear that these two firm friends are moving ever closer to a classic Major Championship confrontation.
McDowell (31) and McIlroy (21) have much in common. They both come from good working stock in Northern Ireland and were introduced to the sport in early childhood by their families.
As golfers, however, they could hardly be more different.
McIlroy has been blessed with a swing that makes even his fellow professionals swoon. Virtually from age two, when he first gripped a club in Holywood, he was bound for stardom. Sharp as a tack, he was cleared by his headmaster to leave school early and pursue his sporting dream.
His game is made for Augusta, where McIlroy's high ball-flight (not to mention his length) give him a significant advantage when it comes to hitting and holding the most daunting greens in golf.
As one might expect of a player who grew up grappling with the sea breezes in his native Portrush, McDowell's game is more rugged and slightly unorthodox.
Americans like to compare him to Lee Trevino, especially since last summer, when G-Mac propelled himself into global prominence by winning the US Open at Pebble Beach.
Like Trevino, his left wrist is bowed at the top of the backswing, but McDowell's action is neither as short nor as flat as that of the garrulous Texan.
Neither is he as heavily weighed down by Trevino's aversion for Augusta National, which the latter dismissed as "a stupid course" after playing Amen Corner in eight-over par on the Sunday of his first Masters in 1968.
McDowell's smitten by the place. It came out loud and clear last week as he looked forward on Twitter to a reconnaissance trip to Augusta with Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson: "We'd all tee up today rain, hail or snow. Feels like the first time, every time. (I feel like) a kid in a candy store."
However, his golfing roots run deep into the sandy soil of Portrush and he grew up in the game at Rathmore, home club to the local townsfolk.
G-MAC: AUGUSTA CAN BE 'A LITTLE STUFFY'
To McDowell, golf is a game of the people, so he'd share a little of Trevino's unease with the social exclusivity of Augusta National Golf Club.
"I love the Masters and Augusta, which represents everything that is great about golf as regards history and tradition," he explains, but "some of the traditions are a little stuffy.
"I always say that Augusta represents so much of what is great and a few things that are bad about golf as well -- the stigma, the elitism and all that kind of vibe, which I'm not really into.
"I think we need to shake that off if we want to grow the game globally and give it to the masses. On the other hand, Augusta is an amazing place and I love going there every year."
Usually, McDowell would also share Trevino's discomfort at having to draw so many tee shots during the Masters but he was delighted to discover on Tuesday at Augusta "I'm actually hitting a fairly decent five to six yards draw at the moment. Ironically, it's as a result of a few old bad habits creeping back my game in recent weeks."
Though he recently admitted "of all four Majors, this is the one I feel I've least chance in", McDowell insists he now has so much more confidence in his short game that a speckled record of two missed cuts and a tie for 17th (in 2009) in three appearances at the Masters are "completely irrelevant".
As US Open Champion; Europe's match-clincher at Celtic Manor and Tiger's conqueror in sudden death in the Chevron, McDowell's entitled to say: "I feel I'm going back to Augusta next week with a completely clean sheet, totally relaxed and with an open mind.
"Defintely I'd love to feel that Green Jacket on my back at some time," he adds. "Generally, it's down to the short game and putting at Augusta and having concentrated so much on that department in recent months (to the detriment of his long game), I'm going in there armed with a lot more belief and confidence than I did in 2010."
CASE OF MIND OVER
MASTERS FOR MCDOWELL
Ireland's 'Man for all Seasons' picked up another two victories in 2010 at the Welsh Open in Celtic Manor and the Andalucia Masters at Valderrama, proving beyond any doubt that if McDowell goes into the back nine on Sunday with a chance, he's not afraid to win.
No question, McDowell's greatest weapon is his mind.
As a boy, he excelled at maths in school, then shone at applied mathematics before going on to major in mechanical engineering during his years on a golf scholarship in Birmingham, Alabama.
There's a touch of the chess grand master in the way McDowell plans his strategy in the days before an event.
"He's as good as I've seen when it comes to plotting a golf course on Tuesday and Wednesday at tournaments," says Pete Cowen (60) the UK's 'Coach of the Year' in 2010 after honing McDowell's short game for Pebble Beach; helping Louis Oosthuizen lift the Claret Jug at St Andrew's and guiding Lee Westwood to the top of the world.
As the Masters looms, McDowell's proficiency as a putter is also relevant.
"When you see him practise, he has massive discipline. There are drills he must do, day-in and day-out and he'll do them religiously all the time, to the point where he's almost on auto-pilot when he's putting on the course," Cowen explains.
McDowell's patience, discipline and superior course management are qualities worth emulating. Much as he enjoys his fellow Ulsterman's company, McIlroy readily admits he also plays with him in practice to learn.
"You have to trust yourself and rely on your own instincts, but there are times when a little bit of advice here and there doesn't hurt," explains McIlroy, who this year is concentrating much of his focus on strategy and trying to control his natural aggression on the course.
"I have a lot of conversations with Graeme about course management," he adds. "The way he thinks his way around the course and his decision making is very impressive. Basically, it's his whole thought process before golf shots, how he weighs up all the options and makes the right decision.
"Sometimes I can be a little too instinctive and just go for the first shot that comes into my head. So, I'm thinking about it a little more. I'm not saying I'm trying to play conservatively -- just take a more controlled approach with my shot selection.
"I'm trying to eliminate mistakes which I believe held me back last year, when I made as many birdies as anyone else, but also made too many bogeys."
As he proved with his sensational weekend surge to victory over a Major championship-calibre golf course at Quail Hollow last May, McIlroy certainly has the game to win anytime, any place, including Augusta.
Yet he's still just 21 and after just 42 months as a professional, McIlroy inevitably has yet to acquire the maturity, experience and self-belief (particularly in his short game), which makes it possible for his good friend McDowell deal better with adversity.
HITTING ROCK BOTTOM
IN THE HIGH ALPS
Resilience is hewn out of hard times in golf and McDowell has known his share of them.
Though he won on only his fourth European Tour outing in 2002, McDowell had to wait nearly two years for his second victory in 2004.
He then went four years without a win, before a neat double in 2008 at The Ballantines in Korea and the Scottish Open clinched his place at that year's Ryder Cup, drawing great confidence from an exemplary performance in Valhalla.
Yet in the summer of 2006, McDowell slid into a deep, dark trough, from which he'd emerge considerably wiser and a great deal stronger.
Rock bottom was reached, ironically, in the High Alps at Crans-Sur-Sierre, where McDowell smashed his favourite club in frustration on the course and then drove away his closest friend and ally, super-caddie Kenny Comboy.
"I'd played 19 of 21 weeks and Crans is one of those courses where you can become very frustrated. I couldn't get it up and down -- I really was gone," he says, recalling the moment he shattered his trusty 5-wood.
"I saw this rock out of the corner of my eye and suddenly, boom, the thing pretty much exploded in my hand. It was a reality check. I remember thinking: 'This is not me, who is this guy'. I'm not a particularly bad-tempered person, but sometimes you don't know who you are in golf."
McDowell responded to this personal crisis by taking firm command of his life and career, making a raft of changes which would ultimately lead to Major Championship glory.
Crucially, he'd move back home from Manchester to Portrush; leave behind a retinue of Tour stars at International Sports Management to become the first 'big-name' player on the books at vibrant Dublin firm Horizon and re-establish his on-course relationship with Comboy.
"I've learned from my down times, from my hard years," says McDowell. "I've worked very hard the last three or four years and have made some big decisions in my life, caddies and management and equipment companies. I feel like I earned my stripes a bit and believed a year like 2010 was coming, though I never quite foresaw it being so amazing."
After McDowell's victory at the Welsh Open last June, many observers were struck by the modesty he showed when comparisons were drawn between his rounds of 64 and 63 over the weekend at Celtic Manor and McIlroy's spectacular efforts at Quail Hollow a couple of weeks earlier.
"I'd be very happy to ride in Rory's slipstream for the next few years because I believe he's going all the way to the top of the world," he said.
Of course, McDowell would leap ahead of McIlroy in the rankings, though one suspects the Holywood youngster will, in cycling parlance, one day come off his good friend's wheel and sprint to the summit of golf. Some question McIlroy's tally of just two tournament wins as a pro, the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic and last year's Quail Hollow Championship, not least the youngster himself.
McDowell begs to differ, saying: "Yeah, he's only won twice, but he's young. He's No 8 in the world and you need to be a hell of a consistent player to get there. I think Rory handles himself extremely well for a 21-year-old. He was tipped not just for stardom, but for the highest ranking and is one of the most talented players I've had the pleasure of playing with. He makes the game look easy.
"Sure, his golf brain is young, but he makes up for it with a lot of talent and skill. Once the golf brain matures, and he keeps coming to courses like Augusta, and Open golf courses, it's only a matter of time until he gets his head around it and understands how to control his talent.
"When that happens, it's going to be pretty scary what the guy can achieve."
HELPING BRIGHTEST YOUNG
TALENT ACHIEVE POTENTIAL
McIlroy could not wish for a better friend or more generous mentor than McDowell and one suspects the Portrush man will play a hugely significant role in helping one of the brightest young talents in golf achieve full potential.
Here's a telling tale from the Ryder Cup. It took place very late on Wednesday night in the European team room, long before the heart-stopping, cork-popping excitement of Celtic Manor Monday.
Forever honest, sometimes painfully, McIlroy that day had to pay some dues for a few forthright observations he'd made about Tiger's abject form in the wake of the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
Woods mischievously made capital of those words in his pre-Ryder Cup media conference, stirring a controversy which the crestfallen 21-year-old feared might have given the Americans an edge in the pre-Ryder Cup battle of wits.
Noting his playing partner's unease, McDowell sat down with him and, over a casual bottle or two of beer with the youngster, they simply shot the breeze -- helping him through the night.
The following morning, as McIlroy stood on the first tee, he was stunned to see several of his team-mates, including McDowell, Kaymer and the caddies report for duty in bushy black 'Rory wigs' -- a glorious gesture which made the youngster feel very much part of the European Ryder Cup fold.
McIlroy has yet to develop the tough outer shell which protects seasoned professionals like McDowell and his vulnerability showed on Masters Friday last April as he left the golf course in near-despair after missing the cut.
Yet the class he showed 12 months earlier, in playing the final 10-holes on Sunday at Augusta National in six-under as he swept into the top-20 on his Masters debut, showed McIlroy certainly has the game to win a Green Jacket.
They don't yet enjoy the status of Ballesteros or Olazabal, but the canny G-Mac and his six-shooting young sidekick Wee-Mac might still light up next week's US Masters like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.