Thursday 22 August 2019

From Dublin safe to Pebble Beach

How Graeme McDowell's 2010 US Open medal completed its journey back home

Re-united: Graeme McDowell with caddie Ken Comboy, his former agent Conor Ridge and his father Kenny on the seventh tee at Pebble Beach earlier this week
Re-united: Graeme McDowell with caddie Ken Comboy, his former agent Conor Ridge and his father Kenny on the seventh tee at Pebble Beach earlier this week

Brian Keogh

There was a US Open shrine in the media centre at Pebble Beach this week - a precious collection of artefacts from the event's history worth their weight in gold. It was a collection that featured the ball Bobby Jones used to complete his Grand Slam in 1930 and the red visor Arnold Palmer hurled into the sky after his win at Cherry Hills in 1960.

There was also Tiger Woods' final-round scorecard from Pebble Beach in 2000, the one-iron Ben Hogan used for his iconic approach to the 72nd hole at Merion to force a play-off in 1950 and the putter Jack Fleck used to deny Hogan a fifth US Open at Olympic Club in 1955.

Graeme McDowell has since given the USGA one of the clubs he used, but until this week there was no possibility of him donating his winner's medal to sit alongside the one awarded to James Foulis for his 1896 win at Shinnecock Hills.

The reason is that it had spent nine years hidden, not in a safe deposit box in Monte Carlo but in the safe of John McGrath's EuroSpar supermarket in Milltown in Dublin - just a smooth nine-iron from Shamrock Rovers' old stomping ground.

McDowell thought it might be at his parents' home in Portrush or buried somewhere amongst his memorabilia in the garage at his Orlando home. But it was only when his former manager Conor Ridge told his wife Emma that he was heading back to Pebble Beach with Shane Lowry, and planning a reunion dinner with the protagonists of that memorable 2010 US Open victory, that flashbulbs started to go off.

McDowell's path to the first US Open win by a European for 40 years began when Woods crashed into a fire hydrant outside his home on Thanksgiving in 2009. McDowell replaced him in the field for his season-ending Chevron World Challenge after Ridge had made a tentative enquiry to the tournament director, Greg McLaughlin.

"It was a serious long shot, but Greg said that if Graeme was willing to travel to LA, he would make him first reserve," Ridge recalled this week.

"We travelled from Hong Kong to LA on the Sunday night the World Cup finished, not even knowing if Graeme was going to get into the tournament."

McDowell would finish second to Jim Furyk, moving from 51st to 38th in the world and securing his place in all the Majors in 2010. The rest, as they say, is history.

He would go on to etch his name into the record books at Pebble Beach, setting in train a whirlwind 72 hours that ended with an emotional homecoming at Rathmore Golf Club in Portrush and a US Open trophy tour.

"The medal was something that could have gotten lost, and the only place I knew with a safe was my wife's dad's shop. He owns the EuroSpar in Milltown," explains Ridge, who can be seen running on the 72nd green with McDowell's father Kenny to envelop the 2010 US Open champion in an emotional embrace.

"So we put the medal there and left it there and I didn't think about it for ages. Six months later I thought of it again and then forgot about it again until 2017 when I saw Brooks Koepka with his medal at Erin Hills.

"Of course it then went out of my mind again until Emma told her dad I was going to Pebble Beach that he said he'd just seen it the other day when he was rummaging around for some documents.

"Graeme was thrilled when I gave it to him and his dad when we all got together again for dinner on Tuesday. He was truly blown away."

Adventurous

It's been an adventurous last nine years for McDowell, who now appears to be getting back to his very best. But it's also been a busy time for Ridge, who is now 42 and a father of three.

Horizon Sports Management still manages Lowry and England's Ross Fisher, as well as rugby stars Johnny Sexton and Peter O'Mahony. And while the well-documented sojourn as Rory McIlroy's manager has come and gone, he's moved on and set up a private equity investment company, Bua Private, with interests in real estate, property asset management and other businesses including tech start-ups.

"We are all still very good friends," he says of his relationship with the McDowells and caddie Ken Comboy. "That week changed all our lives, to be honest.

"I have so many memories - like the cafe near the hotel on Cannery Row where we went every day to kill time before his late afternoon tee-times, going down to LA the next day when Graeme did 'The Late Show with Jay Leno' and a cameo on the set of 'Entourage'. It was crazy stuff.

"We all knew the magnitude of it, and even though it was new for all of us and new for him, it wasn't at all stressful. It was just exciting. We knew something big was coming when he won in Wales two weeks before Pebble, and he just felt it was a stepping stone to something big. By that stage, we all knew what Graeme was capable of doing.

"We have shared an awful lot of amazing times together, and I felt bad for him when he was going through a few lean years. But at the same time, he was having kids and getting married, and that's important too. Golf taking a back seat is not a bad thing.

"To be honest, I feel truly humbled and privileged to have been able to play a small part in what Graeme achieved in 2010.

"Not only the drama of winning the US Open at Pebble Beach but also holing the winning putt at the Ryder Cup in Celtic Manor and beating Tiger in a play-off down the stretch at the Chevron later that year. It was just the craziest year ever and a really special time in our lives," recalls Ridge.

Now that the medal has been restored to its rightful owner, the circle is finally complete.

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