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Sunday 22 January 2017

‘Nicklaus, Watson, Kite, Woods, and me’

Graeme McDowell basks in glow of US Open victory after joining the illustrious list of Pebble Beach champions

Karl MacGinty

Published 22/06/2010 | 05:00

Graeme McDowell in relaxed mood at the Monterey Plaza Hotel following his US Open victory at Pebble Beach on Sunday.
Graeme McDowell in relaxed mood at the Monterey Plaza Hotel following his US Open victory at Pebble Beach on Sunday.

JACK NICKLAUS, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods, me. . . Wow!

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As he reeled off the list of men crowned US Open champion at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell suddenly was confronted by the enormity of his achievement. This 30-year-old son of Portrush, Co Antrim, has just joined one of the regal dynasties of golf.

"To win at Pebble Beach and join those names is a pretty amazing feeling. I'm not quite sure if I belong in that list," he mused. "But hey, I'm there now."

McDowell emphatically "belongs" after staring down three of the greatest players of his generation -- Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Woods -- in a true war of attrition on Sunday.

Make no mistake, the calm resolve, patience and perseverance this remarkably talented young man showed as he prevailed in one of his sport's most intimidating arenas firmly establish his credentials as a crown prince of golf.

The ocean backdrop at Pebble Beach must rank as the most spectacularly beautiful vistas in golf but there was nothing faintly romantic about the gruelling gauntlet McDowell and his rivals had to run at the US Open.

McDowell was surprised that a final round of 74 and a 72-hole total of level-par 284 was good enough to win a Major title, but the United States Golf Association set up the golf course to push the game's elite to the limit.

Relief

And he was half afraid to open his eyes as he awoke in his hotel room in Monterey yesterday morning, fearing it all might have been a dream. "It still seems so surreal," he said, adding: "It was a relief to see the trophy was still there."

Winning the US Open, the most gruelling of golf's Major championships, has propelled McDowell into a new world of sporting celebrity.

Not long after shaking his head clear of a hard night's partying at jam-packed Brophy's Tavern in nearby Carmel, McDowell was taking calls from RTE's 6.01 News, followed by a radio interview with Des Cahill. Then he was whisked on a private jet to Los Angeles, where the Ulsterman was booked to appear on the 'Jay Leno Show'.

And the producers of the hilarious and hugely popular TV series 'Entourage' are keen for McDowell and his new best friend, the gleaming US Open trophy, to take a cameo role in the final episode, which is being recorded in LA today.

McDowell's agent at Dublin firm Horizon Sports Management hopes to get McDowell and the trophy home to Belfast "as soon as possible, possibly even by tomorrow", so the process of celebrating his phenomenal victory with family, friends and neighbours can truly begin.

Yet Tinseltown had been furthest from McDowell's mind as he'd fought grimly for his place in the history books on Sunday afternoon ... in the process becoming the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 and just the fifth in all to win the US Open.

We are living through a golden era for Irish golf.

McDowell and Padraig Harrington have won four of the last 12 Majors and three of the last eight, offering hearty endorsement of the production line of talent set up by the Golfing Union of Ireland and the pre-eminent position the game enjoys in our small island's sporting psyche.

While McDowell inevitably drew inspiration and confidence from the recent mould-breaking feats of three-time Major champion Harrington, another Irishman with real Major potential awaits his chance.

Despite missing the cut at Augusta and Pebble Beach, Rory McIlroy has it within his gift to start winning Major titles in the not too distant future -- and with McDowell's elevation by 24 places to No 13 in yesterday's world rankings, Ireland now has three players in the top 15.

One can hardly wait for next month's British Open at St Andrews, when Harrington (No 15), McIlroy (No 10) and McDowell are likely to serve as the three greatest threats to Tiger as he pieces back together the golf game which once made him appear unbeatable at the Home of Golf.

Portrush, meanwhile, has produced two of this country's three Major champions, McDowell and 1947 British Open winner Fred Daly, which stands in testament to the special place golf enjoys in this relatively small community.

Yet, above all, McDowell's victory at Pebble Beach is a human story ... a wonderful tale of how a kid from an everyday working family, who started out playing on the local pitch and putt course, can work his way up to the pinnacle of world sport.

McDowell explained it best himself. "I had a pretty humble upbringing. I had very hard-working parents (dad Kenny and mum Marian). Both worked full-time, though I certainly didn't want for anything growing up," he said.

"I was introduced to golf probably at eight or nine. Portrush is probably one of the more spectacular golf courses in the UK and Ireland and it was inevitable I was going to play the game at some point. I was in love with it from the word go. I love everything about the sport.

"Myself and my younger brother Gary -- he's a scratch player -- did nothing but play golf for the next 10 years together. My dad was an avid golfer and certainly drove me hard. He was always by my side every shot coming through any amateur career, up through college golf and into the pro ranks.

"So there was nothing nicer for me last Sunday than to be able to give him the Father's Day gift that he said he most wanted.

"I come from a pretty humble background but I certainly had a great upbringing and golf was a big part of that. I was very lucky to grow up in such a great golfing neck of the woods on the north coast of Ireland and I firmly believe that's a big reason why I sit here today.

"Though I didn't want for much growing up, I certainly was under no illusions. I was going to have to work hard for anything I achieve in my life. I've always had a good work ethic.

Ambitious

"I was reasonably well behaved in school and got my grades good. I always worked hard. I worked hard at the game. I always practised hard. I was always very ambitious and driven. I always dreamt of having one of these, so this is pretty special," he added, nodding to the gleaming US Open trophy.

Modesty prevented McDowell from listing his achievements. He's very bright. McDowell always excelled at maths and earned a first grade during the year he spent studying engineering at Queen's University before continuing his academic career in equally impressive fashion on a golf scholarship in Birmingham, Alabama.

At golf he's brighter still.

McDowell won multiple 'major' amateur titles at home; he played with Luke Donald on the star-studded 2001 Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team that beat the US at Sea Island, Georgia; he broke the average round-score record held by Tiger and Donald during his stellar final season in Alabama; and he won five European Tour titles before making his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla in 2008.

This rich combination of sporting talent, intelligence, mental discipline and determination helped McDowell finish one stroke ahead of French 'springer' Gregory Havret, two better than Els and three clear of Woods and Mickelson in Sunday's endurance test at Pebble Beach.

Prevailing in the US Open arena is "as much about controlling your emotions as anything else," said Ken Comboy, caddie and close friend for the past four years to McDowell, who in turn describes him "my rock".

"The golf course (at Pebble Beach) asks you 18 difficult questions and if you let your guard down on any hole, even the easy ones, it'll knock the sticks out of you," continued the Mancunian, whose wife Liz hails from Thomastown in County Kilkenny.

Nobody is better qualified to assess McDowell's strengths than Comboy and explain how his man prevailed while seasoned champions foundered and one of America's brightest prospects, Dustin Johnson, utterly imploded under the pressure of taking the lead into the final round of a Major.

"Graeme's strengths as a player were fantastic and he played to them," he explained. "We always said he'd the game to play in these US Opens, the sheer guts never to panic when something goes wrong. You've got to keep making pars and making pars, this is the way you make progress. He's got that kind of game and that kind of discipline and was able to carry it out."

It's called true grit. As McDowell moves forward with the certainty that only Major winners possess, Sunday was just the first page in a new chapter at golf's Major championships for one of its toughest, most resilient players.

Irish Independent

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