PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Graeme McDowell and Shane Lowry probably weren’t the only two Irish guys enjoying a couple drinks on a transcontinental flight Sunday, but few had more reason to.
They were on a chartered plane ferrying players from the RBC Canadian Open near Toronto to California for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Lowry was ebullient having finished T-2 behind Rory McIlroy, who at the same time was aloft and headed west in his more salubrious private jet. McDowell had recorded the most meaningful T-8 of his career, a finish that earned him a coveted berth in the Open Championship next month in his hometown of Portrush.
“Typically when RBC put the plane on, it’s normally after the Open Championship coming back to the Canadian Open and it gets a little colorful on that plane sometimes after a major,” McDowell said Tuesday. “But this time we were on a way to a major, so it was perhaps a little less colorful.”
That was true only of the other passengers, not the Irish guys.
“We had a couple glasses of wine and certainly enjoyed ourselves. And it was a great weekend for Irish golfers in general, with Rory winning and Shane finishing second and me squeezing into Portrush. It was certainly a weekend, a Sunday night that felt it needed a little bit of celebrating, and we did so,” he said with a coy smile.
The quest for a spot in the field at Royal Portrush had been a millstone for McDowell for several months, almost to the point of becoming a distraction. Spectators had taken to shouting their encouragement at every Tour event he played. Now having punched his way to Portrush, the genial McDowell is free to focus on the other Open — the one he’s actually playing this week, on a course where he triumphed nine years ago.
And that is less daunting a prospect than it seemed a short time ago.
“I think four or five months ago, if you’d have told me you’re on the first tee with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson this week at the U.S. Open, where my game was or where my confidence level was, I would have been very intimidated, no doubt about it,” he admitted. It was a striking acknowledgment from one of the PGA Tour’s grittiest players, and revealing of just how depleted his reserves of confidence had become.
Last summer the 39-year-old was beginning to face a golfer’s midlife crisis, the prospect of his competitive career being over.
“You start kind of having a conversation with yourself about mortality and thinking I could be ready for the second stage of my life and my second career. And I started to realize I love being out here. And the vision of it going away, playing the way I was playing, if I continued to play that way, it was going to go away quite soon,” he said. “So I realized that when it was gone, I was going to miss it really terribly and that I should really take the opportunity to enjoy myself a little bit more while I’m out here, actually enjoy the challenge, not see it as frustrating and something that was beating me up rather than saying, well, hey, I’m doing something I love. Working hard. It’s a hard game. Some days it feels easy, some days it doesn’t.”
The game is certainly easier now for McDowell after winning on Tour in the Dominican Republic earlier this year. “It’s amazing how mental a game it is when you let yourself enjoy the sport a little bit more, good things start to happen,” he said. “I think the last three or four months with the victory and some good finishes and starting to kind of put myself under the gun a few times and getting the juices flowing again, confidence is one of these very fragile things. it certainly goes away a lot quicker than it comes back.”
A year on from wondering if he was headed to another phase of his career, McDowell believes he has a chance to win this week on the course where he held off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson nine years ago. “I come into this week feeling very good about my game, looking forward to the challenge of teeing it up with two great players on Thursday and Friday, and trying to dissect this golf course and get myself in position to hopefully be able to compete this weekend,” he said.
The U.S. Open is a grinders tournament, perfectly suited to McDowell’s tenacious style. And his record in Northern Californian Opens is stellar. Two years after winning at Pebble Beach, he almost took a second title at Olympic Club in San Francisco. He desperately wants another run at a major title.
“One of my big goals is to get myself back there on the back nine on Sunday afternoon in the not too distant future,” he said. “See if I can maybe get another big one before it’s all said and done.”