McDowell steel matched only by compassion for and popularity with fellow pros
Published 06/10/2010 | 05:00
GRAEME McDOWELL is the 'Iron Man' of golf. This barrel-chested Ulsterman's magnificent match-winning feats for Europe at Celtic Manor on Monday merely confirmed what many of his professional rivals have long believed.
Nobody is tougher in a tight corner or more defiant down the stretch than McDowell. Not since Tiger ran his Cadillac Escalade over a fire hydrant and into a tree last November, at least.
Europe's finest never get a penny for their heroics at the Ryder Cup ... nor do they want it, sating themselves instead on pride, passion and a rare chance of camaraderie.
Yet McDowell boarded the victorious European team's charter flight to Scotland yesterday for this week's Dunhill Links Championship with a lot more than a wide grin and a sore head after one of the wildest victory parties in Ryder Cup history.
The Portrush man's reputation as one of his sport's most fearsome finishers has been cemented by Monday's decisive 3&1 victory over Hunter Mahan in the most crushing arena of them all.
McDowell's faith in his own ability to flourish under fire has been nurtured by a string of dramatic victories on the European Tour.
The trail stretches from his hard-won victory at the 2002 Scandinavian Masters, only his fourth professional tournament, through play-off wins at the 2004 Italian Open and the Ballantine's Championship two years later, to his Scottish Open success that summer and a superlative weekend romp at the Welsh Open at Celtic Manor this June.
Yet McDowell's ability to survive in the most hostile of environments in professional golf was seen to best effect as he saw off a world-class field on the Sunday at Pebble Beach to claim the US Open title.
Until Monday, that is, when the 31-year-old crowned his second Ryder Cup with a performance which, inevitably, will be etched into the psyche of any opponent who goes face-to-face with McDowell down the stretch.
As Colin Montgomerie explained, McDowell was chosen for the anchor role at the Ryder Cup precisely because of the widespread belief in European golf that he never blinks when faced with a challenge, regardless of the gut-churning circumstances.
Now the rest of the world knows it too.
A global TV audience saw 'Iron Man' McDowell at his finest on Celtic Manor's daunting 16th and 17th holes on Monday.
Yet very few know of an incident which took place late one night in the European team room last week -- one which gave a glimpse of the man behind the iron mask.
It concerned Rory McIlroy (21), whose first visit to the Ryder Cup arena had been plunged into a media controversy of his own and Woods' making, the World No 1 whipping up back-page headlines with a typically Tigerish response to a naive comment about his form by the youngster a month earlier.
Inevitably, the Ryder Cup rookie was sore with himself for giving Woods such an easy opportunity to wind him up. Mind games are part and parcel of golf and no self-respecting professional will pass up the chance to put the opposition under pressure.
Noting his young friend was a little out of sorts, McDowell sat McIlroy down for a chat and by the time they rose -- witnesses say it was around 12.30am -- the Holywood star once again was walking with that trademark spring in his step.
Recalling the conversation, McIlroy said: "G-Mac's one of my best friends. We spend a lot of time together and even away from tournaments we play golf together. We try and catch up with each other every time we're back in Northern Ireland.
"He just said to me: 'Is all this Tiger nonsense getting to you?' And I went: 'It is, sort of.' As I've said to you guys (the media), sometimes I'm a bit too honest and say what I think.
"So G-Mac said: 'Don't let it get to you' and at the practice round the following morning, when they all came out with the (black curly) wigs, it made me feel at ease. I just knew I had the support of the whole team, which was fantastic."
Those who watched closely the early skirmishing at the Ryder Cup will have seen McDowell take his gifted young playing partner under his wing in the fourballs and foursomes.
Though unhappy with his own swing at Celtic Manor, McDowell still spared the time to gently ease McIlroy into the fray.
"Rory went from strength to strength as a Ryder Cup player," McDowell explained. "He started off on Friday nervous and tight and not himself. On Saturday he was phenomenal and on Monday he took a half from a great match with, probably, the best player on their team (Stewart Cink).
"I think Rory has gained an understanding for what the Ryder Cup is all about and the emotion and the passion involved and he'll want more of this. It'll help turn him into the great player that he is going to become."
Waving away McIlroy's controversial description last year of the Ryder Cup as "an exhibition", McDowell went to bat for his young comrade when he stated: "That was a slip of the tongue.
"Yes, this is not a Major championship; it is not a WGC event; there's no money or world-ranking points.
"It is pride; it is playing for Europe and Rory understands what it is all about right now and he will rate this golf tournament very highly in his repertoire. This will have been a massively maturing experience for him."
McDowell's compassion for a young friend and his reputation as one of the most universally popular players in the European locker room -- sinking beers with Miguel Angel Jimenez in Austria for example or sharing a (frat) house with Ian Poulter and Ross Fisher at last month's US PGA Championship -- paints a more rounded picture of the affable chap that is to be found behind the iron mask.