Friday 24 November 2017

McDowell's Major joy

Karl MacGinty

KENNY McDOWELL enjoyed an astonishing Father's Day treat at Pebble Beach yesterday , every dad on the planet can fully imagine the thrill of watching one's son win the US Open Championship.

After witnessing at first hand how long and hard the youngster worked to turn boyhood dreams into reality, seeing him take such a Major to fulfilment was a joy.

Yesterday, the younger McDowell held firm under the most insense of pressures as the great and the good of golf fell away.

Turning in a solid level par 35 to maintain the lead given to him as Dustin Johnson fell apart, McDowell had to endure some nervous moments before joining the select group of Irishmen to have won a Major.

The Portrush man held his nerve on 14 to emerge with a bogey six when it could have been so much worse as it was for Johnson whose three shot lead disappeared in minutes at the beginning of the round.

The American - who has won twice here - duffed a couple of chips to drop three shots on the par four second and then compounded that by losing his ball on a drive at the third to drop two more shots.

In contrast, his playing partner was a picture of calm as McDowell turned in level par when a bogey at the ninth took away the shot picked up by a two at the fifth.

Johnson's fate was more typical of the competitors who saw Pebble Beach take firm control of the event. Tiger Woods had six bogeys in his opening 12 holes as he ended with 75 while Phil Mickelson's (73) putting touch deserted him. Ernie Els (also 73) missed several chances to exert some pressure as McDowell's mixture of classy ball striking and nerves of steel brought him to glory.

McDowell's closest challenger was Gregory Havret - the invisible Frenchman who was barely seen by TV cameras but who produced a display which playing partner Woods could only have been envious. Havret pulled pulled a putt at the last to finish on one-over par and leave McDowell, after a bogey at 17, to crack a perfect drive down the last and, four solid shots later, a par was enough to finish a round of 74, a level par total that secured a stunning one stroke victory.

Graeme McDowell's journey to Pebble Beach began at about the age of seven, when he picked up a golf club for the first time.

"We used to go across to the local pitch-and-putt," his proud father explains. "Graeme and his younger brother Gary would say, 'take us over, take us over,' so they'd batter balls and we stayed in the car ... you know what it's like after your Sunday dinner."

Kenny and Marian McDowell raised their three boys -- Gordie is the eldest -- in Portrush, a seaside town on the north Antrim coast where golf is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Royal Portrush is famous wherever this game is played and the McDowell boys, like many of their peers, could hardly wait for their 10th birthday and the opportunity to join Rathmore, the golf club which shares the world-famous links.


"Whenever they went for lessons with the local professional, he used to line them all up, you see, point to a target 100 yards away and say, 'right, the closest to that target wins a Mars bar," Kenny continues.

"Well, after about six goes, Graeme had been moved about 50 yards back from everyone else," he adds. "They had to keep moving him back because he was so good. He ate a lot of Mars bars."

Anecdotes come tumbling out like range balls. McDowell's parents both had jobs and during school summer holidays Kenny would leave the boys at the golf club on his way to work at 7.45.

"They'd have a lunch box and we took them over their tea," he recalls. "And we'd have to go looking for them in the dark. Marian would be saying, 'they couldn't still be at the golf course.' Yet I knew where they'd be.

"There's a big bush at the back of the 17th on the Royal, and I says, 'I bet you they're there.' So I'd flash the car lights and next thing I'd hear, 'coming now dad, give us five more minutes.' You know what it's like, you're hitting shots in the dark and your eyes become used to it."

The sharp competitive instinct, which has helped McDowell cope comfortably with every step of his ascent to the pinnacle of professional golf, including the Ryder Cup, was honed in those early years. One story explains this process better than most.

"The first competitive match he played was in the Fred Daly Trophy," Kenny continues. "You need a team of seven for that but Rathmore had only five. Gary and Graeme were playing in the pitch and putt, so they said to come on over. Graeme was a 42 handicap and Gary was a 45. Yet the competition was played off scratch and Graeme took a 16-handicapper to the 16th green."

Fear is not something kids like McDowell find on the golf course. During his rise through the amateur ranks in Ulster, with Ireland and on a golf scholarship to Birmingham, Alabama, where his aptitude for applied mathematics shone as he studied engineering, McDowell consistently won for fun. In his last year at College in the US, he won six out of eight tournaments and his average round score of 69.6 that season broke an all-time record held by Tiger Woods and Luke Donald. McDowell also played a prominent part in a famous Walker Cup victory by the GB&I team at Sea Island, Georgia, in 2001.

Within weeks of turning professional in May 2002, McDowell completed a dramatic victory in sudden death at the Volvo Scandinavian Masters, only his fourth outing on the European Tour. Many 22-year-olds would have been tempted to spend a €316,660 windfall on a Ferrari or some other fancy sports car. Instead, McDowell bought his mum and dad a new house in Portrush.

Don't take this wrong. McDowell, now 30, is a fun-loving guy. Indeed, he felt the need to blow the froth off his social life around four years back and rededicate himself to his craft.

In a complete sea-change in his career, McDowell linked up with new Dublin sports management company Horizon; forged a powerful partnership with English master caddie Ken Comboy; took a year out from club sponsorship to find his ideal manufacturer, Callaway, and went home to Portrush.

It was a worthy, mature and deliberate effort to re-establish contact with his roots in the game and the rewards came when McDowell won twice on Tour in 2008, the Ballantines Championship and Scottish Open, clinching his Ryder Cup debut that September at Valhalla. When he registered his fifth victory on Tour a fortnight ago, simply blowing away the opposition with rounds of 64 and 63 over the weekend at the Wales Open at Celtic Manor, McDowell shelved his plans to head straight for the US to begin his build-up to the US Open at the exclusive Florida resort of Lake Nona.

Instead, he flew home and threw a party for family and friends at The Wine Bar in Portrush, taking time out to share this moment of success with the people closest to him.

McDowell's graduation last weekend into a real contender at the Major Championships has not happened by accident. It is the product of rare talent, graft and powerful motivation.

He might not be able to strike a ball as hard and as fast as Dustin Johnson, McDowell's lofty US playing partner in the final group on Saturday and once again yesterday at Pebble Beach. Neither is he blessed with Harrington's genius around the greens.

Yet the Ulsterman's game is glorious in several other respects. He's uncannily consistent off the tee and fairway and, on his day, is a first-class putter, blessed with imagination.

Yet, above all, McDowell's a phenomenal warrior, one of that special sporting breed who can turn butterflies into bullets.

"Happy Father's Day to everyone out there. This is fun isn't it?" quipped McDowell as he walked down the final fairway. For Kenny, there could have been no better present.

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