McDowell is 'Spartacus' as World's his oyster
GRAEME McDOWELL is Spartacus! The Portrush warrior was last man standing after four gruelling days of cut-and-thrust golf on the same ground where ancient Rome's greatest gladiator was born and reared.
Few in his sport are mentally and physically tougher than McDowell, as he proved at Thracian Cliffs yesterday by becoming Irish golf's first winner of one of the game's most prestigious titles, the Volvo World Match Play.
McDowell (33) beat Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee 2&1 in the final to join the parade of legends who have etched their name on this trophy in the 50 years since Arnie Palmer won the inaugural World Match Play in 1964.
"Els, Montgomerie, Westwood, Ballesteros, Norman, Lyle, Faldo, Player, Palmer," sighed McDowell (33) as he cast his eye down the list.
"It's just crazy stuff, really. To have your name on a trophy this cool is pretty special.
"You know, Irish golf is certainly carving a niche for itself in world golf at the minute, and there's a curly-haired kid who's pretty good ... so anytime I can do something before he does, it's never a bad thing.
"Every time Rory looks at the US Open trophy he's going to see my name above his," explained McDowell, who became the first European in 30 years to win America's Blue Riband at Pebble Beach in 2010, 12 months before McIlroy romped home at Congressional.
"Obviously with what Padraig Harrington has done and Darren Clarke winning the Open, it's been a lot of fun. I'm more excited right now to add my name to the list of champions at this event."
In the wake of the astounding news that McIlroy is to leave Horizon Sports and set up his own back-room team with family, close friends and confidants, this latest success by their long-standing client McDowell serves as welcome consolation for the Dublin management company.
In all, McDowell mowed down six opponents over 99 holes on this beautiful, beguiling and bewitching stretch of Bulgaria's Black Sea shore, earning €800,000 and enough points to lift him one place to seventh in the world rankings.
Coming just five weeks after his victory in the US PGA Tour's RBC Heritage at Hilton Head, South Carolina, McDowell's performance at Thracian Cliffs firmly establishes him as a hot contender for his second US Open title at Merion next month.
His long-serving caddie and close friend Ken Comboy insists McDowell is a better golfer now than three years ago, when his first Major title was just one of four he won on either side of the Atlantic in 2010 – when he also clinched the Ryder Cup for Europe at Celtic Manor.
"He's a better player, absolutely," said Comboy. "The fact that he's seventh in the world, with the 2010 US Open no longer counting, proves how well he's playing. Graeme's in a great place in his personal life," he added, referring to McDowell's forthcoming marriage to Kristin Stape in September and the Nona Blue restaurant he and two friends have opened near his Orlando home.
"He does everything right off the course. His professionalism is as good as anybody's on the Tour and it's really starting to pay off now," the Englishman added. "He's really improving as a golfer and starting to perform on a regular basis.
"No way Graeme's not going to enter a US Open over the next 10 years without licking his chops. Bottom line, he works very hard and is getting what he deserves."
As the Volvo Match Play is a limited field event for 24 players, €499,999 of McDowell's winnings yesterday count in the European Money List, but he still leads the Race to Dubai with €1.029m won in 2013.
Yesterday was his eighth victory in 240 events on the European Tour since turning professional in 2002 and his 11th worldwide. McDowell's official career earnings in Europe amount to €15.21m, while he's banked a further €6.25m in the US.
However, four hugely impressive days by McDowell at Thracian Cliffs suggest there's much, much more in the offing. "I feel I've learnt a lot from what I've gone through since winning the US Open," he confirmed.
"Really, it was all about getting comfortable with the idea that I deserved that US Open; acclimatising myself to being in the upper echelons of the game; adjusting to that new status and just feeling more comfortable in my own skin out there winning tournaments.
"Hilton Head probably was the best I've ever felt down the stretch, just believing I can win. It's tough to compare this week to a 72-hole strokeplay event. It's just different and feels really special."
Even in yesterday afternoon's final when Jaidee – an opponent as tough as one might expect a former Thai army paratrooper to be – forced the Ulsterman onto the back foot for the first time in the tournament, McDowell retained the confidence and composure which had been such a striking feature of his performance throughout the week.
In contrast to yesterday morning's semi-final, when McDowell rattled up eight birdies in his brilliant 3&2 dismissal of South African Branden Grace, the final was more fraught, thanks largely to the sterling efforts of Jaidee ... until the 43-year-old simply ran out of steam down the stretch.
After a brilliant pitch-and-putt to save par and a half at the first, Jaidee grabbed the lead by holing a 30-footer for birdie at the second and then went two-up with another at the fourth.
McDowell's putter really came to his rescue at the fifth, where he holed a 16-footer for an unlikely par five after hitting his approach into a bush. He made his first birdie in the decider at seven, then sank another couple of crucial saving putts at nine and 10.
The Ulsterman drew level with a birdie four at 12 and cracks began to appear in Jaidee's resolve when the Thai hit his drive into a bush at 14 on the way to a bogey which allowed McDowell take the lead for the first time.
"Those par-saves on nine and 10 were massive," said McDowell. "I sensed from Thongchai that he was starting to tire a little, I really sensed a bit of an opening. The mistake he made on 14 and my birdie at 15 really were the telling stuff."
In his 99 holes (four fewer than Jaidee, incidentally) McDowell made one eagle, 30 birdies and a mere four bogeys, a phenomenal effort of which Spartacus himself would have been proud.