Red devils duo can make life hell for Americans
BALLS are forever being hopped on the European Tour and we're not talking about Pro V1s. Swing coach Pete Cowen set one rolling in Graeme McDowell's direction just before last year's World Cup.
McDowell and Rory McIlroy were scheduled to represent Ireland in the season-ending spectacular at Mission Hills. So Cowen primed McDowell's pals to finish any conversation with him during the week of the Dubai World Championship with: "You guys should do well at the World Cup ... sure anybody could win with Rory!"
Even when McDowell threw a party for the team at Callaway to thank them for all they'd done on his behalf during the year, Pete Harrison, the company's head of operations in Europe, brought his after-dinner speech to an uproarious climax with the McIlroy punchline. Well, nobody's teasing McDowell now.
June's phenomenal victory in the US Open, just two weeks after his spectacular Welsh Open win at Celtic Manor, has established the Portrush man as one of Colin Montgomerie's trump cards for next week's Ryder Cup, especially given his impressive performance under fire as Europe fell at Valhalla two years ago (he garnered two and a half points from four matches).
Last weekend's performance as he came home in a tie for third at the Austrian Open certainly suggests this rugged Ulsterman is ready to play a senior role in the most intimidating arena in golf.
After a four-week break to recover from his whirlwind summer, McDowell needed just nine holes on the Diamond Course last Thursday to shake off his ring-rust. Jose Manuel Lara might have beaten England's David Lynn in the play-off for the Austrian Open title but the authority, control and confidence shown by McDowell as he posted four rounds in the 60s suggests he'll rise to the challenge of being a Major champion.
Yet when Monty pairs up the two Northern Irishmen at Celtic Manor next week, McDowell, though nine years older and more experienced, certainly will not lord it over Ryder Cup rookie McIlroy. Theirs will be an equal partnership, as it was in last year's Vivendi (Seve) Trophy in Paris, when the pair teamed up impressively to win three points out of four for the victorious Great Britain and Ireland side.
For all the teasing McDowell took before the World Cup, McDowell virtually carried his young friend into second place (behind Ryder Cup team-mates Edoardo and Francesco Molinari of Italy) as McIlroy was mentally and physically spent after pushing winner Lee Westwood all the way in the Race to Dubai.
After a hectic summer, in which McIlroy picked-up his first US PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow and registered fighting third-place finishes at the British Open and behind European team-mate Martin Kaymer at the US PGA, he ran out of steam once again during the recent FedEx Cup play-offs.
"They were a tough three weeks," explained McIlroy. "I wanted to be up for it and try hard but I knew I had a long stretch coming up, with the Ryder Cup at the end of it, so I wasn't as mentally sharp as usual.
"That's why I made a few mistakes, didn't seem to respond very well and, unusually for me, I got a bit down on myself," added McIlroy, though he now concedes that failing to make this week's Tour Championship "probably was a blessing in disguise" as he looks forward to becoming the 19th Irishman to play at the Ryder Cup.
He's made the most of his two-week break, visiting Old Trafford twice in the past seven days, first to see Manchester United draw 0-0 with Rangers and again on Sunday for their 3-2 win over Liverpool.
In Austria, meanwhile, McDowell spent much of Sunday afternoon badgering Sky TV's on-course commentator Wayne 'Radar' Reilly for match updates. When these two rabid Red Devils get together at Celtic Manor next week, one expects them to make life hell for their US opponents.
Those of us -- including coach Cowen -- who have long considered McDowell capable of winning Major championships (note the plural), view next week as an opportunity for him to make that step up to the next level at the Ryder Cup.
"I definitely feel different going back this time round," said McDowell. "I'd no idea what to expect at Valhalla. I was hoping to get a few games and I was lucky enough in getting four. I'd played my way onto the 2008 Ryder Cup team but, as a rookie, I didn't have any experience. Obviously, in those circumstances, the captain's not relying on you, there's not as much weight on shoulder. This time round, if I'm playing well enough, I'll fully expect to get at least four, maybe five games, and be an integral part of the team."
As he proved last weekend, he is playing well enough to make a major impact at Celtic Manor. Inevitably, McDowell and McIlroy will play together next week and when they do, it'll be only the 11th time that two Irishmen have been paired together at the Ryder Cup.
Fred Daly, a Portrush native like McDowell, and Harry Bradshaw formed the first all-Irish duo at Wentworth in 1953, beating Walter Burkemo and Cary Middlecoff by one hole.
The only other Ryder Cup match to be won by an Irish combo came at Oakland Hills in 2004, when McGinley and Padraig Harrington sparked a 'pitch invasion' and an unforgettable hooley by beating Tiger Woods and Davis Love III 4&3.
Harrington, who has played with McGinley four times over three Ryder Cups, teamed up with McDowell for his debut in the Friday afternoon fourballs at Valhalla.
"The quality of golf played at that Ryder Cup was stunning," McDowell recalls. "Padraig and I were something like 10-under better ball and we still got beaten (2 holes by Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim). It was incredible stuff."
Well, fans can expect the sparks to fly next week as McIlroy and McDowell open a new chapter in Ireland's rich Ryder Cup history.
Harrington plays for high stakes in Paris
THE €1.25m purse at this week's Vivendi Cup in Paris is a mere fraction of the $7.5m prize fund on offer to just 30 players at America's Tour Championship.
And with a $10m jackpot going to the man who finishes on top of the FedEx Cup points table next Sunday, the tournament winner in Atlanta could walk away with up to $11.35m.
Which makes the €200,000 for first place at Golf de Joyenval look puny. Yet Padraig Harrington has rarely played for higher stakes than he does in Chambourcy. After a season of mind-boggling inconsistency, it's vital for wild card Harrington to win the trust of his European team-mates before next week's Ryder Cup.
Flanked by his elder brother Fergal in this inaugural Pro-Am event, Harrington takes on Celtic Manor comrade Peter Hanson, with vice-captains Thomas Bjorn and Paul McGinley also in action.
Just one of Monty's team, wild card Luke Donald, qualified for the Tour Championship at East Lake, while nine of Corey Pavin's players feature, including three of the top four in the FedEx Cup standings, Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson and Steve Stricker.
Most Europeans will focus on the performance of Ryder Cup 'rejects' Paul Casey, who at fifth in the rankings is assured of that $10m jackpot if he wins the Tour Championship, and Justin Rose, 11th in the FedEx Cup standings.
Meanwhile, following a fine showing at the Austrian Open, Damien McGrane must be rated favourite to pip Shane Lowry in this week's Ladbrokes Irish PGA Championship at Seapoint.