You never know in life when the first domino might fall and how many might topple thereafter. Autumn to autumn, 2009-10, they dropped in perfect order for Graeme McDowell, some in a fashion to shock even the most broad-minded.
It’s not every day someone goes from a self-proclaimed “struggling” golfer outside the world top 50 to U.S. Open champion, to Ryder Cup hero, to Tiger Woods slayer, to arguably Golfer of the Year, to a premier closer who needs to slap himself to make sure it’s not just a wild dream, all in 12 months.
“A life-changing season,” the Northern Irishman said. “It’s given me amazing amounts of satisfaction.”
Particularly considering he entered last fall in a rut that prompted him to change swing coaches, from Clive Tucker to Pete Cowen. The latter, not a technical teacher, had been his short-game instructor. Hence Domino 1, tweaking the engine of a feel player who loves hitting a variety of shots.
“I was struggling a little bit because I was starting to fall in love with trying to make my swing more technically correct on camera, with swinging the club nice instead of effectively,” McDowell said. “We’ve gotten very much back to playing golf. My full swing went from technical to playable. On the range, I try to play shots instead of trying to make a perfect swing. (Cowen) has turned me into a tougher player.”
That December, as a last-minute substitute for a troubled Woods, McDowell finished second in the Woods-hosted Chevron World Challenge and moved to 38th in the world. The new standing allowed him to organize his practice and schedule and got him into the Masters and two early World Golf Championships events.
“A bizarre story,” he said.
McDowell was going through Los Angeles while making his way home to Orlando, Fla., after finishing second with Rory McIlroy in the World Cup pairs format. Mindful that his client was on the short list of Chevron alternates, agent Conor Ridge advised him to hang in L.A. for a while, just in case. The jet-lagged Ulsterman was mall shopping with Ian Poulter – “retail therapy,” McDowell termed it – when he got the good news.
“The small things that happen in your life can shape into bigger things,” he said. “Getting into that event was really the catalyst.”
Taking further advantage, McDowell tied for sixth at the WGC-CA Championship at Doral. Still he was on the top-50 bubble around Memorial Day when a tie for 28th at Europe’s BMW PGA Championship put him at world No. 49 and got him into the U.S. Open. He went on to win the Celtic Manor Wales Open two weeks later, and then at Pebble Beach after another fortnight.
“Without Chevron, perhaps I’m outside of that window and maybe I’m not even at Pebble Beach,” said McDowell, owner of six European Tour titles. “It’s amazing how things happen.”
Such as Sunday at Pebble. McDowell held off heavyweights Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els after being beneficiary of a Category 5 Dustin Johnson blowup. Leading by three strokes after 54 holes, Johnson made triple bogey, double bogey and bogey on Nos. 2-4 en route to 82.
Cowen and caddie Ken Comboy cited McDowell’s detailed preparation to play Pebble as a key.
“He’s a great thinker whose preparation for tournament courses is second to none, much like Bernhard Langer,” Cowen said. “He plays to his strengths, not the designer’s strengths.”
McDowell, 31, had only one previous high finish in a major championship, a T-10 at the 2009 PGA. He had been inching up on the world stage, winning twice in Europe and making the Ryder Cup team in 2008. But when he stared at the Open trophy the morning after, he looked at manager Ridge and said, “Holy —-! That just happened?”
Moments later, Ridge was outside the hotel room on the balcony, fielding an onslaught of requests, when he heard a loud noise. He looked inside the sliding-glass door and saw that McDowell had AC/DC blaring full blast on the stereo and was jumping up and down wildly on the bed, playing air guitar and singing at top voice.
“That was when it first hit home with him that he had won the U.S. Open,” Ridge said. “It was a pretty special moment.”
Still, McDowell wasn’t prepared for the post-Open victory swirl. Interestingly, the full impact, or
hangover, wasn’t immediate.
“I was struggling with it emotionally at the British Open (a month later),” McDowell said. “I was so emotionally drained because it was so big in my world. I remember welling up in the middle of the fourth fairway the first round of the British Open. It was kind of like when people are in shock, they have a delayed fallout. The emotions hit me at weird times. When you achieve probably my wildest dream in this game, it just creeps up on you.”
The fantasy wasn’t over. Sent out in the final match, he scored the winning point in the Ryder Cup, beating Hunter Mahan, 3 and 1, thanks to McDowell’s 15-foot birdie at 16 and a couple of poor Mahan shots at the next.
Understandably, in the weeks since, he has been asked often which victory means more. Though he referred to Ryder pressure as “so much more intense,” the Open was “so much more for me. I would not give the U.S. Open up for anything.”
The two successes brought confidence, earning power and stamped him as a clutch player, the ultimate compliment in any sport. McDowell relishes the reputation, cemented even further when chasing down and out-dueling Woods at this year’s Chevron.
“There are horrible terms thrown around, like ‘chokers,’ ” McDowell said. “I’m not a believer in that term. To be on the other end of the spectrum is nice. It’s just about being mentally tough.”
McDowell has his own way of dealing with the tension.
“It’s just a game,” he said. “If I’m having a rough day on the golf course, I sometimes think, ‘I’m still going to drink a cold beer tonight. It’s going to be OK.’ ”
That’s not to say he’s a model sports psychologist out there. He says Comboy sometimes has to snap him out of down moods, saying things like, “Listen, you’re playing great. You’re just being an idiot. Let’s focus.”
Comboy apparently did some of his best work in that last Ryder singles match. McDowell’s victory was not only impressive, it was instructive. He was the hero, but at times he was dying inside. So you can imagine how Mahan and other losers felt.
“I was having a real tough day,” he said. “I was nervous, and it was hard, and I didn’t like it. And I wanted it to be over. It’s an amazing concept because you work so hard to get there and you dream of being there, but once you’re actually in that moment, it’s hard. The pressure I felt was so immense.”
The bottom line, instructor Cowen points out, is that his man handled it. Learning to do so was
a key to McDowell’s rise in 2010.
“He started understanding himself better and trusting he could play shots under pressure,” Cowen said. “He’s very comfortable being uncomfortable. The best players are comfortable in uncomfortable spots. People who come through can deal with it.”
Comboy acknowledges McDowell is “vastly improved,” particularly on short shots, since they started together in 2006. Yet he says McDowell’s demeanor didn’t need much shaping up.
“He has a great attitude about golf,” the caddie said. “He loves to play. He feels fortunate he’s a golfer.”
Make that rich golfer. Ridge says he’s negotiating with several global brands and aims to secure three or four “pretty lucrative” endorsement contracts in the coming months.
“He tells me he’s made my job easy,” the agent said, “but I keep telling him it’s never been harder. I have had to become very good at saying no.”
Besides cashing in, McDowell’s next goal is to excel on the PGA Tour. He had his Tour card in 2006 but didn’t play a full schedule because of injury. So he’s treating 2011 as his first full season, though he also plans to play enough to keep his European Tour card. The transition shouldn’t be difficult for Golfweek’s 2002 College Player of the Year out of Alabama-Birmingham, for he has spent most of his off time in recent years at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Florida, where he is building a new house.
Another goal is avoiding the big head. He knows where to go for a solution.
“I’ll go back to Ireland where people treat me the same way they did when I was 15, 16 years old,” he said. “They give me a good slap if I need one. It’s great. It puts life in perspective for me. Private jets and frickin’ desert islands and playing for millions of dollars; I go back home and see the real world. My buddies tell me what they think. It keeps me grounded. That’s what real friends are like.”
He was born and raised there in Portrush, site of one of the world’s best courses, on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. That means he learned how to play in bad weather at a young age. It also means he knows about strife and violence in the six-county north, or Ulster province, predominantly Protestant and long under British rule.
Violence was an everyday occurrence in Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s, as the pro-Catholic Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary groups carried out bombings and other terrorist acts in Belfast, Londonderry and elsewhere. Some violence continued for years; bad publicity lingered for decades.
The 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” thwarted claims to the North by both the 26-county Republic of Ireland and Great Britain and acknowledged the right of Northern Ireland’s people to control their political destiny.
McDowell grew up with a Protestant father and Catholic mother, victims of some social fallout when they dated. Because golf is a 32-county sport, McDowell played for Ireland, proudly wearing the green blazer. He carries British and Irish passports. Little wonder then he’s apolitical.
“I tell people around the world I’m Irish because people love the Irish,” he said. “The second you say ‘Northern Ireland,’ they kind of look at you funny. The people are exactly the same. I sit on the fence because I don’t see where else I can sit.”
McDowell recalls a couple of policemen in his area being shot when he was about 8. And a bomb going off five miles away when he was 10.
“I want to be proud of where I’m from,” he said. “I’m proud of Ireland. I’m proud of Northern Ireland as well for what it is, for the people we have, for the golf courses, for just the place. It’s difficult. I’m not proud of the ‘Troubles,’ what it’s done (to) us. Obviously it’s hurt tourism. I bump into too many people around the world who told me the great time they have in Ireland and Dublin and Kerry and all these places. They never visit the North Coast.
“I’m like, ‘You’ve got to come to Portrush and (Royal) County Down. You’ve gotta come to the North. Come see us.”
McDowell has a penthouse apartment on the sea there. He also has a U.S. Open ornament based in Portrush. You might say his line of dominoes started there. It just keeps extending, a valuable and unpredictable piece at a time, out into the horizon.