Tuesday 10 December 2019

Odd couple G-Mac and Rory say better-ball goodbyes

McDowell insists friendship still strong as he explains World No 1 outgrew 'little brother' role

Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy consult during their fourball partnership at the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy consult during their fourball partnership at the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images
Graeme McDowell speaks at a Ryder Cup press conference at Gleneagles. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Karl McGinty

Golf finds a way to humble us all, even Ryder Cup stars.

Every player who has ever swung a club in anger, from Sunday morning hacker to PGA Tour matinee idol, knew exactly what Graeme McDowell was talking about at Gleneagles yesterday when he explained how disheartening it can be to partner Rory McIlroy at fourball.

The Portrush man admitted that at Medinah in 2012, he "found the better-ball format very difficult with Rory. He likes to go first and I kind of let him at it. You know, he's standing there after beating it 350 yards down the middle and I put my tee in the ground thinking there's not really a lot of point in me hitting this tee shot.

"So I find myself throwing myself at it, and it didn't help my game much at Medinah playing better-ball with him.

"Foursomes is different. I think we could still play foursomes really well together. I love playing off his tee shots, as anyone would - 350 down the middle works everywhere, every week, as he has shown lately."

Famous

McDowell is most famous for winning the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, then three months later sealing Ryder Cup victory for Europe at Celtic Manor.

Few professionals are as adept as McDowell when it comes to explaining the intricacies of their sport to the rest of us.

His explanation of why Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley might consider it better tactically to split his two Ulster aces this weekend was masterful.

Asked what had changed tactically to alter the dynamics of a partnership that once had appeared so natural on the Ryder Cup and Seve Trophy stage, G-Mac first killed off any suggestion of ill feeling between the two of them after McDowell was drawn into McIlroy's bitter legal battle with Horizon.

"Our personal issues have been well documented the last couple of years and I believe we've both come out of the other end of that probably better friends than we were going in," said McDowell. "So our personal issues are not a problem this weekend. That's a fact.

"Tactically, I think our golf dynamic has changed significantly from the first time we ever played together back in 2009 at the Seve Trophy (when they won three out of four points for the GB&I team captained by McGinley).

"The older brother, younger brother leadership role that maybe I had with him is changed forever. He's the world's No 1 player now. He's a four-time Major champion. He would now be the leader of the two of us, and perhaps that dynamic doesn't work as well as it did in the past.

"Perhaps I'm the kind of guy that needs that leadership role a little bit, who needs to feel that he is at least on a level with the guy he's playing with.

"I'm the first to admit it, Rory and I spoke about this at Medinah and I've discussed it with Paul McGinley as well."

From personal experience, the skipper knows exactly where McDowell is coming from.

"He felt like himself and Padraig Harrington were the same. They gelled well as a partnership in their early days but when Harrington became the star, the dynamic changed from the tactical point of view. It just didn't work so well any more," said McDowell.

McGinley and Harrington certainly cooked up a storm together, winning the World Cup for Ireland at Kiawah Island in 1997, spearheading the home team's win at the 2002 Seve Trophy at Druid's Glen before reaching a peak on Saturday afternoon at the 2004 Ryder Cup, when they sparked wild Irish party by beating Davis Love and Tiger Woods 4&3.

Over dinner hosted by the Dublin duo at that November's World Cup of Golf in Seville, it was amusing but fascinating too to hear Harrington and McGinley engage in good-natured banter about who was captain of the two-man Irish team.

Authority

Seven years earlier in Kiawah, the authority of McGinley, nearly five years older and vastly more experienced than Harrington, had been beyond question.

Still, McDowell's partnership with McIlroy may work well enough to allow them team-up in foursomes in this Ryder Cup.

"We're both up for it," G-Mac affirms. "As Paul says, though, he feels I could be best used somewhere else, while Rory certainly can play with anyone. We'll both happily do what's best for the team."

McDowell appears just the right man to take 22-year-old debutant Victor Dubuisson under his wing in fourballs. He has struck up a comfortable relationship in recent months with the sublimely gifted but very private young Frenchman.

"I think I'm one of a few players who could fit that bill," G-Mac said. "I've heard Victor described as an enigma and a tough kind of a guy to get your head around what he's thinking.

"His relaxed demeanour could be confused with nervousness or intimidation. I've kind of being trying to get close to him the last few months and spend a little time with him and I've found him to be a great guy.

"We do have a great team room this week with some dynamic personalities and I think Victor can bring a huge amount to this team. I'd love to play with him.

"We're definitely trying to pay attention to him in the team room and make sure that any questions he might have in his head get answered, that his mind is put at rest and he's ready to play some great golf this weekend."

Whoever gets to play with McIlroy on Friday morning, the 25-year-old World No 1 appears the perfect choice to hit the opening drive at this Ryder Cup.

There are few more intimidating places in sport than the first tee on Friday morning at the Ryder Cup and this will be ratcheted up several notches at Gleneagles, with more than 3,000 people packed into the vast stands erected around that teeing ground.

Few relish a challenge more and are better equipped to deal with it than McIlroy and, with the adrenaline flowing, nobody is capable of making a bigger or more important statement of intent for Europe in that first match than the Holywood native.

However, pairing him with Poulter in the opening fourball, as some suggest, represents an unnecessary gamble so early in the match, especially in view of the Englishman's poor form this season.

To give the opposition a chance to spike one of your big guns is perfectly acceptable, to offer them the opportunity of spiking two in the first game would be careless and, potentially, very damaging, as hapless Hal Sutton discovered when he opened with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in Detroit in 2004.

Few are better qualified than McDowell to talk about the tensions of playing that first shot on Friday, having done so at Medinah in 2012, when the opening session was foursomes.

Asked to compare hitting the opening shot and sinking a match-clinching point at the Ryder Cup, new dad McDowell said: "Playing those final holes at Celtic Manor was the most nerve-wracking experience of my life.

Nervous

"I thought I'd be nervous going into the delivery room there four weeks ago but I don't think I'll ever be as tight or a nervous again in my life as I was on that back nine in 2010. It was pretty intense stuff.

"To make birdie on 16, like I did, and win that point was one of the highs of my career. Hitting the first tee shot at Medinah was a very bizarre experience. I was very calm and confident and ready to take it on when I went to the tee. The noise was amazing and everyone's excitement levels had peaked.

"I remember getting announced and, as I put my tee in the ground, the whole place going deathly silent and how bizarre that was.

"I remember standing over that tee shot and thinking to myself this is just the most bizarre feeling I've had in my life. I didn't put a good swing on it because my head genuinely was elsewhere.

"Afterwards I thought to myself that maybe I should have whipped up the crowd like Bubba (Watson) because I'd never heard anything like that silence."

Still there's really no comparison, he insists, between the Ryder Cup and having a first child (wife Kristin gave birth to daughter Vale three weeks ago).

"That changes something inside you for ever," said McDowell, who admits his head was still spinning from euphoria (or was it sleep deprivation?) when he played the BMW in Denver.

However, his feet are back on the ground; he's swinging well and feeling fresher than he did at Medinah, which, personally, had been a subdued Ryder Cup experience for McDowell.

He certainly has no fears for Poulter, his near-neighbour and recent practice partner at Lake Nona, going into this Ryder Cup.

"I think Poults is coming into this week like a guy who has won two of the last four Majors. To have that self-belief, even if it's not based on anything solid, is awesome," he said.

"I was hitting balls with him last week and he was charging me up. He's really up for this. That's why we call him the postman at the Ryder Cup - he always delivers."

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