19th hole: Gutsy veteran Graeme McDowell deserves spot on European Ryder Cup team

PACIFIC PALISADES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland plays his shot from the bunker on the 10th hole during the final round of the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club on February 18, 2018 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images) Warren Little/Getty Images

19th hole: Gutsy veteran Graeme McDowell deserves spot on European Ryder Cup team

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19th hole: Gutsy veteran Graeme McDowell deserves spot on European Ryder Cup team

LOS ANGELES – Graeme McDowell carries himself with that particularly Northern Irish bearing of a jovial brawler. He has a glint in his eye, squat shoulders and a jaunty gait that stops just shy of a swagger, a combination that suggests a man intent on a convivial evening at the bar but alert should an unanticipated scuffle erupt.

McDowell, 38, hasn’t had much cause for swagger in the last few seasons. He hasn’t won since the fall of 2015 and has posted just one top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in the last 15 months. Of course, European fans don’t much care what he did last year, because the Ryder Cup is this year. So the spark of life McDowell showed last week at Riviera – he hung around the lead all week until stumbling with a Sunday 77 to finish T-26 – is cause for optimism.

Because there are plenty of reasons why they want McDowell on the team in Paris.

“With any form this year, most in Europe would expect him to be one of the four [captain’s] picks,” says Paul McGinley, who skippered McDowell’s last European squad to victory in 2014 at Gleneagles.

McDowell himself was guarded when I mentioned the Ryder Cup as he stood in the shadows of Riviera’s clubhouse Saturday.

Moved Ryder Cup ‘to the back of my mind’

“I’ve moved it to the back of my mind. I feel like I’ve got a lot of things to do between now and getting on that team,” he said. “Standing here right now, it’s probably not a realistic goal. But if I continue to play the way I’m playing for the next few months, it may start to become a realistic goal. I’ve got some things I need to do between now and really believing that I’m good enough to be on the Ryder Cup team. Deep down I know I am good enough, but I’ve got to put results on the board. I’ve got to take care of my business.”

Such is the fragile confidence of those who play for a living, as a major champion questions if he’s good enough to play an event in which he repeatedly has proved his mettle.

Of course, there are a number of things a captain looks for in his Ryder Cup picks, and form isn’t always top of that list. McGinley enumerated a few such considerations.

There’s popularity among his peers. Check.

There’s a proven record leading off in the No. 1 slot in singles. You can ask Jordan Spieth about that. At Gleneagles, McDowell beat him from 3-down and set the tone for a Sunday rout.

There’s a proven record in the daunting last-man spot in singles. McDowell clinched the Cup in that position in 2010 in a pressure-packed match with Hunter Mahan.

There’s a track record on the host course. McDowell has won the Open de France at Le Golf National. Twice. Back to back.

“His heart is the obvious quality but adaptability is more important to the dynamic of a team,” McGinley says. “Adaptability and openness to play a varied number of roles within a team. In the pairs, very few can play the senior role to a rookie. It’s always a problem in any team to find experienced partners who are open to playing with rookies.”

When McGinley needed safe hands for the mercurial loner Victor Dubuisson, he called upon McDowell, and the pair went unbeaten all week.

Guts? Check

Heart matters, for sure. But so do guts. McDowell isn’t lacking there either.

The list of people who have gotten the better of Tiger Woods in a playoff is comically short, but McDowell’s name is on it. Remember the World Challenge tournament at Sherwood Country Club in 2010? That’s when Tiger hit his approach to three feet on the last and Steve Williams declared proceedings over by ripping off his caddie bib in the fairway. If the flinty competitor in McDowell noticed, he didn’t say. He just drained a long birdie putt that forced Williams to replace his bib, and another in overtime to take the title.

His last two Tour victories also both came in playoffs. When tossed into a crucible, most melt. A few are forged, and it’s the job of a Ryder Cup captain to notice the latter.

“The Ryder Cups have been the greatest experiences of my career, bar none,” McDowell said at Riviera.

“Bar none.” That’s quite a statement from a man who has held aloft a U.S. Open trophy. You can bet captain Thomas Bjorn noticed that too. Gwk

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