Graeme McDowell: The untold story of golf's modest champion
US Open winner Graeme McDowell has fame, fortune and now an entry in the history books, yet, as Gordon Hannah reveals, he remains golf’s most unassuming hero
When Graeme McDowell holed the final putt to win the US Open, suddenly he became global property. But his fame and fortune is unlikely to change the Portrush-born 31-year-old whose feet remain firmly rooted on the North Coast.
He owns a sea front apartment in the resort to which he returns frequently. “It keeps me grounded,” he says. “My mum and dad didn’t have much money when they were growing up, and although I try to look after them as much as I can, they still lead a pretty simple life.
“This isn’t a particularly wealthy part of the world, but I’ve always liked it. Money is not the driving factor”.
Indeed, he revels in the simple life when he returns home. Often he can be found in a sea front cafe sipping coffee and doing a crossword.
As one of the world’s elite golfers — a status which will soar even higher after he became only the second golfer from Northern Ireland ever to win one of the Major titles — he is used to the
high life. Golfers are well looked after at the world’s great tournaments.
“You become very blase about your lifestyle”, he says. “You fly into these exotic locations, you get picked up in some fancy BMW and they treat you like kings. You stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants and you forget that most people would give their left arm to do that for one week of the year.
“That’s why Portrush is a huge key for me. It keeps me grounded”. In his moment of triumph the first person to race onto the 18th green at Pebble Beach golf course was his dad Kenny, who hugged him and said: “You’re some kid.” For Graeme, there could be no higher praise.
Graeme has always been “some kid” when it comes to golf. His talent was obvious from an early age and in 1998 at the age of 20 he went to the US on a golf scholarship.
A member of the Rathmore Club on the North Antrim coast, McDowell was born to be a winner and his successes in the unpaid ranks and during his time at university in Birmingham, Alabama, were testimony to his prowess on the fairways.
During his college career he was ranked Number One Collegiate golfer in the United States. Out of 12 starts he won an incrediblesix events with a stroke average of 69.6, beating the previous best returned by Englishman Luke Donald and the legend who isTiger Woods.
Professor Eric Wallace from the University of Ulster remembers seeing him in action two years later playing for Ireland in the World Student Games. The team won the golf event and Graeme took the individual honours by a huge margin.
“I realised he was a special talent. I have worked with him on several occasions on the biomechanics of his swing, but ultimately it is sound and he just has to keep playing the way he always does.
“What marks him out as special is that he is not afraid to win. At the professional level the pressure is enormous no matter how talented you are and Graeme has the focus needed.
“In the US Open his playing partner imploded, but that did not faze Graeme, he just played his own game. That requires enormous self-belief and concentration”.
When Graeme tapped in the winning putt I’m sure there was a huge outpouring of relief and emotion across the country among those, who just like me, had sat glued to their television screens until 2.30am.
It was a real rollercoaster ride but in the end a magical moment, after all we’d seen nothing like it since 1970 when Tony Jacklin was the last European golfer to hoist the huge trophy aloft.
Little wonder, then, that Graeme, with more than a little touch of an American twang picked up during his college days in the States, told the watching millions across the globe: “This is one of the proudest and most emotional moments of my life.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling.”
However McDowell, known affectionately as GMAC, was probably the least surprised by his magnificent victory leaving in his wake such world stars as Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, every one way ahead of him in the official world rankings.
For confidence is not something which is in short supply in ‘Supermac’s’ make-up.
Even on a bad day at the office he surfaces with only the positives. It dates back to the very day he turned professional in 2002 after a quite dazzling career as an amateur.
Before entering the lucrative paid ranks McDowell also played a leading role in the Britain and Ireland Walker Cup team having ‘served’ his time on the home amateur circuit where he won the Ulster Boys and Irish Youth Championships. And when he joined the European Tour he didn’t have to wait long before banking his first substantial pay cheque, picking up a then massive €316,660 for winning the 2002 Volvo Scandinavian Masters.
As the pressure built and with a tricky putt to clinch the title, television commentators were wondering what was going through the mind of the young man from Northern Ireland.
Viewers saw him consult with his caddy and that only added to the conjecture. But they need not have worried because later Graeme’s dad Kenny revealed what his ice cool kid had actually said to his caddy: “Jingle Bells, Christmas has come early.”
That’s typical of the man who recently has turned a corner. It’shard to believe that just two months ago GMAC, who turns 31 on July 30, was in danger of not making the starting line-up for the US Open.
He was not even in the world’s top 50 who get automatic entry and it looked as if he would have to qualify for the big event.
Then, hey presto, he suddenly took off. He finished sixth at the Madrid Masters and the following week triumphed in the Celtic Manor Wales Open, the track over which the Ryder Cup will be contested this September.
And after Sunday when he picked up a cool €1,123,970 jackpot to push his career earnings beyond€8m (£6.7m), he is a sure fire starter for Colin Montgomerie’s European team.
While McDowell will now see his earnings increase manyfold, he will still want to come back to his roots. He has a sea front apartment in Portrush which he says he will never sell.
If he hadn’t been a golfer he might have considered becoming a mechanical engineer, but even that career would have had a sporting angle.
“I wanted to get involved in golf technology,” he recalled during one interview.
His closest buddy on the golf tour is another startling Northern Ireland talent, the precocious Rory McIlroy, whom he admires greatly.
Outside of sport one of his heroes is Irish rock star Bono. Now, of course, McDowell is everyone else’s hero.
McDowell is suddenly the number one golfer in Europe leading the chase for Ryder Cup places and has stormed from 37th to 13th in the world rankings.
Victory has brought not only untold wealth but has made life easier for the future. For a start his days of having to qualify for the Major tournaments are no more, well not for quite some time.
That’s because he has gained a 10-year exemption into the US Open, a five-year exemption into the Masters Tournament, Open Championship and the US PGA Championship as well as a place in this year’s lucrative Grand Slam of Golf.
As an extra bonus he also extends his European Tour exemption until 2017.
McDowell is only the second player from Northern Ireland to win a Major Championship after Fred Daly, who won The Open in 1947.
Success at Pebble Beach came on his 19th Major Championship appearance and allows him to join such luminaries as Harry Vardon (1900), Ted Ray (1920), JimBarnes (1921), Tommy Armour(1927) and of course Jacklin (1970)as the only British golfers to have won the US Open.
It’s his sixth European Tour International Schedule win after the 2002 Scandinavian Masters, 2004 Telecom Italian Open, 2008 Ballantine’s Championship, 2008 Barclay’s Scottish Open, 2010 Celtic Manor Wales Open and of course the US Open being the icing on the cake. The Ballantine triumph will be remembered for some thrilling golf, none more than the shot he produced to clinch the title in a sudden death play-off.
The air was full of tension as he unleashed a sublime seven iron from 179 yards to within a foot ofthe cup. It probably still rates as one of the best shots of his career.
That signalled the start of something good, an unforgettable spellthat also brought him the Barclays Scottish Open title and a Ryder Cup place against the USA at Valhalla.
Then there was that equally incredible effort when he holed his second shot at the treacherous 17th at Valderamma in Spain for that rare bird which is an Albatross.
The spectacular shot catapulted him into the share of the lead for the season ending Volvo Masters. Sadly a double bogey at the final hole saw him slip back to joint fourth for one of five top 10 finishes that season.
But if he lives until he is 100 nothing will compare with the feeling he enjoyed when he slotted in that short putt on the 18th green at Pebble Beach which will have earned him fame and fortune.