Sunday 25 September 2016

McDowell 'more relaxed' about challenge of bringing title back home

Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

The Foreign Legion of the European Tour offers a clear and present danger to the Irish challenge for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open which starts today on the Palmer Ryder Cup Course at The K Club.

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A total of 22 home players tee off in the field of 156 starters. Realistically, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington represent the best chance of a first Irish victory since Lowry claimed the title as an amateur at Co Louth in 2009.

They need a good foundation over the first 36 holes, as otherwise, history suggests that this could be another year when the Irish Open title goes abroad.

Holder Soren Kjeldsen from Denmark became the fifth Scandinavian player to win since Patrick Sjoland of Sweden broke the mould for golfers from that part of Europe in 2000 at Ballybunion.

Kjeldsen was preceded as champion by Finland's Mikko Ilonen at Fota Island in 2014, and Danes Soren Hansen (2002), Thomas Bjorn (2006) are also on the list of champions.

Four of the last eight winners have been English - Richard Finch ('08), Ross Fisher ('10), Simon Dyson ('11), and Paul Casey ('13).

Jamie Donaldson struck a blow for Wales in Graeme McDowell's home town, Portrush, four years ago.

It doesn't get any easier this week, with Masters champion Danny Willett, Germany's Martin Kaymer, Andy Sullivan and Lee Westwood (both England), Rafa Cabrera-Bello of Spain, and Joost Luiten from Holland all likely to press for the top positions.

McDowell has arrived in Dublin fresh from an encouraging top-10 finish at The Players Championship in Sawgrass. He knows all about the traditional pressure on the Irish competitors at this event.

"That's something I struggled with my first, six, seven years maybe, as an Irish player at the Irish Open.

"I think I've become a little bit more relaxed about it over the years. As my record was fairly awful there for many years, my expectation levels started getting a little lower, and I subsequently started playing a little better.

"I feel like I've shaken that off a little bit, and come in here a little bit more relaxed, and a little bit more open-minded and just try to enjoy the week for what it is.

"It's a great opportunity and it's always fun to play in front the great crowds that we always get at the Irish Open."

"A couple years ago, at Fota, I had a fairly good chance at the weekend. It was nice to be competing.

"There's a lot of events in the world I'd love to win, and this is just another one. I'm hoping to just be relaxed and play as well as I can and we'll see what happens," said McDowell.

The Florida-based Ulsterman looks forward to the coming months, which include the scheduled birth of a second child in late August, and a serious bid to qualify for the Ryder Cup team.

The Olympics is unlikely to cause any schedule changes as Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry look certainties for Rio, and that suits McDowell.

"I have a baby boy coming August 29 this year, very excited. It will mean no change to the schedule at all. I'll be playing pretty much heads-on until the end of July.

"I'll look to play the PGA Championship, have three weeks off, spend some time with the family, and then I'll be into the middle of the FedEx Playoffs," he said.

Rafa Cabrera-Bello's team won the Pro-Am with 30-under par. Rory McIlroy was second on -26 and Shane Lowry came third on -22.

Irish Independent

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