Most great golfers have been humbled during a U.S. Open, but not many of them had it happen while sitting at home on the couch. Two years ago Graeme McDowell missed the cut at Erin Hills and was watching with his family in Orlando while Brooks Koepka strolled to victory.
“You know, Daddy won that trophy too,” his wife, Kristin, said to their kids.
“No he didn’t!” the young girls replied skeptically. Their son, Wills, might have joined the chorus of disbelief too, but he was too young to speak.
“I had to go dig it out of my office and show it to them,” McDowell says.
It was a moment both humorous and poignant for the slumping 2010 champion, who found himself wondering if all he had to look forward to was dusting off old silverware to convince his children of past glories. “I would certainly like to be able to show my kids that I can compete against these guys instead of having to pull out old DVDs and trophies and tell them how good Dad used to be,” he says. “It’s certainly something that drives me these days.”
Years from now, McDowell’s kids will realize the old man didn’t just win a major, he won it at Pebble Beach, and in the winning held off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Ernie Els. “I don’t remember the atmosphere being overwhelming,” he says of that Sunday. “It’s not the most claustrophobic golf course. I think that helped me in a lot of ways. It wasn’t the most intimidating crowd I played in front of.”
His calm in the final round owed in part to Kenny Comboy, his caddie of a dozen-plus years. “If it gets noisy out there, just remember it’s likely a par putt,” Comboy told his boss on the range. McDowell shot a one-birdie, three over round of 74, which was exactly what he needed to get the job done. He won by a stroke.
The Northern Irishman turns 40 in July. He’s a peashooter compared to the bombers on Tour these days. But he’s accurate, a strong putter and is no wilting violet under pressure — witness his 6-1 career playoff record, including a win over Woods. In short, McDowell is the last of a dying breed, what used to be the quintessential U.S. Open golfer. He was achingly close to a second title in 2012, finishing T-2 at Olympic Club.
Classic U.S. Open venues such as Olympic, like Oakmont, like Winged Foot are the kinds of courses on which a grinder like McDowell can compete.
He’s doomed on expansive cow pastures that allow longer hitters to whale away with impunity, like Erin Hills. Even Shinnecock Hills last year was less demanding off the tee than in previous Opens.
“It’s been a few years since I feel like we’ve played a real purist’s U.S. Open, if you like,” McDowell says. “Level par is a great score. Adjusting your expectations for what a good score is. For some reason, the U.S. Open was a test that was appealing to my nature.”
As he heads back for another Open at Pebble Beach, McDowell feels more bullish than he has in years. He has rediscovered his old form and is producing results that require no convincing for the kids, winning his fourth PGA Tour title three months ago in the Dominican Republic after a drought of four years.
“You look at Bethpage Black and you know if some of these guys drive the ball great then you have to do something special to beat them,” McDowell says. “Whereas you go to Pebble and you know no one can overpower the golf course. I go there with all the tools to be able to compete.” Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the June 2019 issue of Golfweek.)