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Sky's the limit for McDowell

I n the strange still of late afternoon on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, Graeme McDowell did his duty and headed for autograph hunters at the fairway ropes. With new equipment, a second-round 68 left him on seven-under par in a share of 13th place, seven strokes behind leader Robert Garrigus (14-under) at the halfway stage of the $5.6m Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Among the fans, two Americans in their 30s made a point of catching McDowell's attention. "You caddied for us at Portrush in 1999," they said. And by way of proof, they had a photograph of a vaguely familiar, fresh-faced young man, standing between them.

Golfing friends, Sam Pratt and Tom Herrick, were a few years out of college when they made a trip to Ireland which has since acquired undreamed of significance. "Because of that trip, we followed Graeme's career through college over here and then when he went on tour," said Pratt.

"As it happened, we watched last June's US Open together at my home here in Kauai (one of the Hawaiian islands). And when Graeme came up the 18th in the lead and went on to sink the winning putt, we just sat there with our mouths open, unable to speak. Imagine it, being able to claim that a US Open champion had actually caddied for us. Golf doesn't get better than that."

McDowell seemed charmed by the whole episode. "Though I caddied for quite a few Americans, meeting these guys again like this is a first for me," he said. "I would have got about £50 plus a tip for carrying those two bags, which probably represented my pocket-money back then for playing in an event like the Leinster Youths. An occasional caddying job in between practice. Now I'm playing here for more than a million dollars."

The dramatic change in his circumstances wasn't lost on the world's number five. "The last 12 months have certainly brought a huge change," he acknowledged. "I'm now rated among the top players in the world, armed with the belief that my best is good enough after winning a Major championship." Then, with typical realism, he quickly added: "But that doesn't mean I have a God-given right to shoot 66 every day."

Nor had he lost sight of the responsibilities which accompany substantial wealth and the flood of recent awards -- "I never realised there were so many of them. Of course I'm aware of being in a very privileged position," he went on. "It means I can do things for people, like charities."

He then outlined plans for the G-Mac Foundation, which he hopes will be up and running by autumn of this year. And as a Northerner of mixed-religion background who dislikes being pinned down on Irish or British allegiance, he made it clear that his plans will have a cross-border dimension.

"It will involve kids," he said, "maybe sick kids or simply under-privileged ones. I'm trying to draw on ideas like the Make-A-Wish-Foundation and the Dream Flight in which Ian Poulter helps to fly kids to Disneyworld. I quite like that idea. Maybe we could try and get Aer Lingus involved.

"I find the cross-border issue a fairly interesting dynamic. I know certain players take certain stances but I've always believed in sitting on the fence because I don't see where else I can sit. It's a strange one, having a Catholic mother, a protestant father being raised a presbyterian and playing golf for Ireland. After I won the US Open I was British, I was Irish, I was this and I was that. In truth, my identity is difficult to pin down but to all intents and purposes, I see myself as Irish. I'm very proud of Irish golf as a unifying force and I certainly feel there's no border when it comes to Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington, myself, Paul McGinley, Shane Lowry and all the other fine players we have now."

Interestingly, McDowell's plans began to take shape last November when he was involved with big-hitting John Daly in doing some charity work associated with the UBS Hong Kong Open. "As someone who raised a lot of money for charity, John gave me some pointers. One area that appeals to me is MS (multiple sclerosis), because of my mum's connection with the illness.

"Giving something back, whatever form it takes, goes with the territory as far as I'm concerned when you happen to be in a position of privilege and influence. Though I don't necessarily feel under any pressure, it's simply something I want to do.

"Maybe my dad could become involved; keep him busy. My mum feels very fortunate in that her form of MS is very mild. Her doctor in Belfast is engaged in a charity programme of respite care for advanced MS patients. Stuff like that."

Then, with the sort of keen business sense we traditionally associate with Northern protestants, he went on: "If I'm going to help a charity, I'll want to know where the money is going; how it's being utilised. I'll want to see the end product."

McDowell's anxiety to give something back also involves plans to spend a day with the Golfing Union of Ireland's international panel this year. "It's all a little bit sketchy at the moment but we'll put some flesh on things during the months ahead."

Meanwhile, his change of clubs raised quite a few eyebrows here. We remembered 1996 when Corey Pavin, at the peak of his powers, made a similar decision. From 18th in the money list, Pavin slumped to 169th in 1997 and went 10 years without winning a tournament. Ian Woosnam also had celebrated problems when changing clubs in the 1980s and Steve Stricker was another to experience a club-related slump.

So, was McDowell foolhardy? "Some people thought so," he said. "And I was very conscious of the naysayers. But I was also aware that manufacturers have become unbelievably competitive since the '90s, when there was a huge gulf between a few big companies and the others, in terms of technology. For me, the key elements remain the driver and the golf ball. And I'm confident that Srixon's ball is among the best in the world. The money clubs are still the same. The Cleveland wedges I'm now playing are the same as the ones I had at college and later used to win the 2002 Scandinavian Masters."

So, the change is not as dramatic as a Srixon deal, reported to be worth close on $3m a year, would suggest. Here this weekend, his implements are Srixon ZTX irons four to nine, three Cleveland wedges, his old Callaway driver, a Cleveland three-wood, two Adams hybrids and his trusty Odyssey White Hot 7 putter. His link with Cleveland, incidentally, involves Mike Dunphy, who was once golf coach at the University of Alabama, and the process is further simplified by the fact that Cleveland have recently been absorbed into the Srixon operation.

Significantly, the Portrush man was among the leaders in greens in regulation for the opening two rounds, with a success-rate of about 90 per cent. "I didn't drive or putt very well, but I'm very happy with the way my new equipment worked," he said.

The mysterious island of Molokai was shrouded in mist when McDowell came up the 18th fairway here on Friday afternoon. By way of contrast, our top player projected a heartening clarity of thought and deed, entering a new year on tour.

Sunday Indo Sport