Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Graeme McDowell beats a trail to lasting legacy

Graeme McDowell proved to be the star attraction at the World Match Play event in Bulgaria

It was just another minute in a momentous week for Graeme McDowell at the Volvo World Match Play Championship but one can only guess the impact it might have on the sporting life of nine-year-old Dennis Borislavov.

After hitting their opening tee shots at Thracian Cliffs, the elite professionals competing in this august event had to walk down the same crowded cart path as spectators to reach the first fairway.

Usually they were greeted with great deference by the fans, who almost intuitively made room for the players and their heavily laden caddies to pass. Some offered polite encouragement to the stars, usually getting a nod or a quiet word of thanks in return.

The conversation almost always was one way as the golfers focused on the business in hand. McDowell was the exception, invariably taking the opportunity to make small-talk with fellow golf enthusiasts as he walked.

So when he noticed the small, skinny lad skipping alongside him at the outset of last Friday's final group match with Scot Stephen Gallacher, McDowell cheerfully saluted the youngster, asking if he played golf. In common with most Bulgarian kids, little Dennis speaks excellent English. However, unlike the vast majority of his peers in a country which boasts just eight courses, seven clubs and fewer than 1,000 members, he does indeed play the ancient game.

Plainly intrigued, McDowell wanted to know more about Borislavov, learning that even though the youngster's dad wasn't a golfer, he still introduced him to the sport. "He's my coach," Dennis said proudly.

At this point almost abreast with his ball on the fairway, the Portrush native bade Borislavov a polite farewell, telling him he'd enjoyed their conversation before heading back to work.

As he did in all six of his matches on this stunningly beautiful stretch of Black Sea coast, McDowell won against Gallacher. As the Ulsterman marched to a 2&1 victory over Thongchai Jaidee in Sunday's final, it was possible to pick out little Dennis Borislavov still flitting through the crowds, picking out gaps and good vantage points.

McDowell is a Major champion in every sense. Last Sunday's victory at Thracian Cliffs, his 11th worldwide as a professional, boosted his career earnings by $800,000 to nearly $22m and lifted him to No 7 in the latest world rankings.

As he became the first Irish winner in the 50-year history of the World Match Play Championship, McDowell showed the same precision off the tee, strategic nous on the fairways and deft scoring touch which propelled him to sudden-death victory over reigning US Open champion Webb Simpson in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head five weeks ago. So, including last December's second success in three years at Tiger's World Challenge, McDowell has won three times in the past six months.

However, he and caddie Ken Comboy staunchly deny McDowell is back at the peak he achieved in 2010 by winning the US Open at Pebble Beach, with both insisting the 33-year-old is a comprehensively better player.

He's certainly showing the right stuff to suggest a second Major title is in the offing at next month's US Open at Merion, which McDowell was among the first to reconnoitre when he visited the world-famous Philadelphia course last June.

Revealingly, there was another pressing motive for that visit. Along with an hectic career in golf, McDowell has a busy private life. He opened the Nona Blue Bistro in Orlando in partnership with a couple of friends, while he and fiancee Kristin Stape are laying plans for their wedding in September.

Yet McDowell still makes time to play golf not only for money, but for fun. His mission to make pilgrimages to the sport's greatest shrines brought him to Merion and Pine Valley last summer "with a few mates".

"There's nothing to beat playing a great golf course with friends," explained McDowell, revealing the likes of Cypress Point and Bandon Dunes, plus Long Island masterpieces like Shinnecock Hills and The National Golf Links, still figure on his bucket list.

McDowell is delighted, for example, that July's British Open will be at Muirfield, that jewel in the crown of Scottish golf links, as he has not played there before.

At the exclusive Lake Nona Golf Resort, among the coterie of elite professionals living on the property, McDowell is most likely to be found playing in the Saturday 'members and guests' competitions and having a beer or two afterwards with the members.

The amateur within, the guy who simply loves golf and its ethos, remains unspoilt by 11 years of playing this sport as his day job.

Still McDowell is a winner. Not many are born with a gift like Rory McIlroy's but G-Mac has made the utmost of his slightly unorthodox, Lee Trevino-like swing through hard work, commitment and a sharp competitive edge.

He has learned his trade well and the near 10-year advantage he has over McIlroy in terms of age and experience ensures that McDowell never has to navigate the stormy waters in which the precocious Holywood native repeatedly seems to stray.

Already this year we've seen several examples of how McIlroy's impulsive nature sent him where older, wiser men might fear to tread, with mixed results.

For example, McIlroy's brave decision to throw his weight as then world No 1 behind Paul McGinley's bid for the Ryder Cup captaincy was a perfect example of a young man's moral courage receiving its just reward.

More risky, from the professional perspective, was his impetuous decision to switch all 14 clubs in his bag to Nike in one swoosh, though he seems to have settled any issues with his new equipment.

McIlroy's natural magic already has and probably always will inspire countless youngsters to take up golf. This week, however, the path followed by McDowell as a player, pure and simple, is alluring, and not just to little Dennis Borislavov.

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