GRAEME McDOWELL can succeed Rory McIlroy as Europe's champion golfer this weekend, but before a shot was fired at the DP World Tour Championship the Portrush ace insisted they remain as much friends as rivals.
McDowell was caught in the media crossfire after McIlroy quit their Dublin management company Horizon in April and their relationship became the subject of further speculation last month when the 24-year-old missed McDowell's wedding.
As he refuted any suggestion of a fallout between two of Europe's foremost golfers, McDowell has made clear his ambition to pair up with McIlroy once again at next year's Ryder Cup in Gleneagles.
Asked if skipper Paul McGinley need have any cause for concern, the 34-year-old said an emphatic "No!" adding: "There's not a problem there.
"I'd love to renew my partnership at Gleneagles with Rory, for sure. A big goal for me in 2014 is to be on that team and I expect Rory McIlroy will be on that team.
"Would I like to be teeing off with him on Friday morning in the foursomes? Absolutely! I don't think captain McGinley needs to worry about that relationship."
McDowell left absolutely no room for uncertainty as he continued: "Of course we're still friends.
"I'm inadvertently stuck in the middle of a legal matter," he continued. "I'm very close to both parties and, of course, there's going to be speculation about how that's going to affect both relationships, which is a tough scenario.
"It's tough for everyone, but Rory and I will always remain competitors, colleagues, peers and friends. I care a lot about what he does. I care a lot about how good he is and that will never change."
McDowell is much more than a satisfied customer at Horizon. His management team enjoy not only the complete trust of the 2010 US Open champion, but also his friendship.
When McIlroy instituted legal proceedings against the Dublin firm on the week of McDowell's wedding and was not present at the ceremony in the Bahamas, instead fulfilling a commitment to do a Nike photo shoot with Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, tongues started wagging.
Yet McDowell nailed any talk of ill feeling by revealing he and McIlroy had discussed the matter beforehand.
"We spoke a few weeks before the wedding," he explained. "Rory sent myself and Kristin a very nice congratulatory message and was disappointed he couldn't be there for a number of reasons.
"He's become very good friends with Kristin," added McDowell. "Unfortunately, there was a little negative press about it, but that's just one of those things."
It's a sad sign of fraught times when off-course matters command so much attention on a week in which all three Irish golfers playing in Dubai harbour hopes of making maximum impact on the European Tour's season-ending showpiece.
Especially on such a good news day for Shane Lowry, as he signed a three-year sponsorship deal with McGettigan's Irish Pubs, a popular and rapidly growing chain of hostelries in the Emirates, and their luxury Dubai stablemate Bonnington's Hotel.
No sum was mentioned, but one assumes any deal struck with this accomplished 26-year-old, a two-time winner on the European Tour, would be well into six figures.
As Lowry proved during resurgent rounds of 65 and 67 over the weekend in Turkey, he's striking the ball nicely and has regained the putting touch which deserted him last Thursday and Friday.
With his razor-sharp short game also likely to yield dividends around the undulating greens here, Lowry could well improve on the impressive eighth-place he secured in his only previous appearance at this event in 2011.
Yet now that McIlroy's once again driving the ball as straight and probably even further than before, he's a justifiable tournament joint-favourite with Justin Rose, whom the Holywood native beat with a spectacular five-birdie finishing streak here last year.
For all that, McDowell, currently third in the European standings, shares centre stage this week with leader Henrik Stenson, second placed Rose and fourth-ranked Ian Poulter in what effectively is a quadrangular battle for the Race to Dubai.
Like Stenson and US Open winner Rose, McDowell will clinch the Race to Dubai title should he win the tournament on Sunday. Third place will be enough if Stenson, Rose and Poulter come home behind him.
Stenson's rise to world No 3 since mid-summer, when he followed a runner-up finish behind Phil Mickelson at the British Open and a third place at the PGA with FedEx Cup-clinching victories at the Deutsche Bank and Tour Championship, has been truly spectacular.
Yet as a three-time winner on the world's elite tours this year, a tally surpassed only by Tiger Woods, McDowell would be as worthy a winner as Stenson if he denies the Swede a historic FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai double.
The Ulsterman admits the Earth Course has not been kind to him in the past.
"I do feel like I've stood in that recording area and maybe had a moan and a whine as I explained why I don't get around this course very well," he admitted with a grin. "It typically came down to putting for me on this course.
Yet McDowell's delighted to see it playing "firmer and faster this year, which is more fiery and will suit me. Every year, I've kind of got the hang of it and I come here with an open mind and as a player who is getting better."
He is also fresh after skipping Turkey last week and returning to Orlando to be with his new family.
Glancing at the wedding band, McDowell joked: "The ring finger makes it feel like I've got six fingers on there at the minute. I'm still getting comfortable with that, but it's a lot of fun."
He proposed on the sky-high helipad at the Burj Al Arab Hotel last November and said: "Dubai's a special place for us, so she's disappointed she couldn't make it over here this year.
"She's brought a lot of balance and support to my life. Having someone who lives and breathes the game with you and supports you through the thick and the thin is important," added McDowell, who doesn't need a trophy this week to prove he's a winner at the game of life.
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