Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Tiger Woods woes set Graeme McDowell on fire

Graeme McDowell in action during a practice round yesterday, prior to the start of the Dubai World Championship
Graeme McDowell in action during a practice round yesterday, prior to the start of the Dubai World Championship

The one-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' crash with a fire hydrant on Saturday will inevitably represent a great deal to a great many people; not the least of them, Graeme McDowell, who can now claim to have his world realigned by that early-hour car accident.

If Woods' “transgressions” had remained private then it is doubtful the Portrush would be in Dubai as the US Open champion and, courtesy of his Ryder Cup heroics, as one of the favourites to win the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year.

Neither is it likely he would be at this Order of Merit finale chasing £1.7m — the biggest payday in European Tour history.

It was a set of remarkable events, which McDowell was asked once again to piece together as he began the tournament which could give him the fantastical conclusion to what he calls “my dream season”.

As Woods' world proceeded to unravel, McDowell found himself in the right place at exactly the right time.

“It was kind of a bizarre story, one of those things that happen in your life that can kind of shape into bigger things,” he said. “I'm a strong believer in fate, and that was just one of those very fateful moments.”

Following an indifferent year, McDowell was resigned to ending last season outside the world's top 50. At that stage he was unqualified for the next year's big events and miserable.

“I stopped over in Los Angeles on the way home from the World Cup in China, where Rory McIlroy and I had finished a shot behind the Molinari brothers, rather than hop on to the red-eye to Orlando,” recalled McDowell who owns a home there.

“I felt a bit bummed out at being beaten in China, and decided a bit of retail therapy with Ian Poulter was in order — and because there was just the slim chance I might get the call for Tiger's event.”

As mistress after mistress came forward it soon became clear Woods would not be playing in his own event, the Chevron World Challenge, an exclusive 18-man field, selected predominantly off the rankings.

Down at No 56, McDowell was not the most natural replacement. “They had to go quite a way down the pecking order to get to me, but Conor Ridge, my manager, had gotten friendly with couple of the guys at Chevron and told them I'd be happy to get there at a moment's notice.

“I got the call when I was sat in a coffee shop with Poults. Next thing, I finished second.”

That hurtled him to No 38 and a schedule that has been in doubt was suddenly now set. The pressure was off.

“It gave me peace of mind at the start of the year to play the best game I could and work hard on my game,” he said.

“There's no doubt that the pieces fell into place. That's what got me ready for the Wales Open and the US Open and what went on to happen at the Ryder Cup. Without the Chevron, perhaps I'm not even at Pebble Beach.”

But famously he was at Pebble Beach and then at Celtic Manor. At the former he became the first European in four decades to lift the US Open Trophy and at the latter he holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup.

“If you had shown me the script in January, I wouldn't have believed it,” he said.

“But it's felt right. I've been quietly going about my business for the last five or six years, gaining experience, putting my game to the test and learning from my mistakes. I arrived in 2010, I suppose.”

He might have arrived, but he did not allow the incredible journey to end.

“After the Ryder Cup I could have put my feet up and said ‘great season', ‘dream season', all of the above,” he said. “But I didn't want to do that; I wanted to put an extra shine on the year. You know, you don't get many chances to win an Order of Merit, or a Race to Dubai as it is now. They might not be up there with majors, but money lists are important. They define careers.”

They also fill bank accounts. Win the Dubai World Championship over the next four days and McDowell or Kaymer would scoop a first prize of £775,000 and the bonus pool of £932,000. McDowell had the good grace to sound humble when talking about the riches on offer.

“The world is a crazy place at the minute,” he said. “Especially in Ireland.”

Except nobody who has ever met McDowell would ever begrudge him on a personal level.

“If there's anyone deserves it it's him,” said McIlroy.

“I've seen how hard he's worked over the last few years.”

The evidence is written not only on his results sheet, or, indeed, in the rankings where he has recently usurped McIlroy as the top Ulsterman by moving up to No 9, but also in his attitude to this 7,600-yard Earth Course.

Last year, he left Dubai a depressed pro after finishing in the bottom half of the field.

“I wouldn't have had many good things to say about this course,” he said. “But I'm longer off the tee than I was this time last year, which is going to be a huge benefit.”

That extra length he has acquired with the help of his coach Pete Cowen gives him the confidence to believe he has more than a puncher's chance against Kaymer.

He has £250,000 to make up and must finish at least third to have a chance; but after a season in which each and every expectation has been surpassed it would not be wise to count him out prematurely.

Not that the boxing analogies are wholly appropriate as he explained to one inquisitor yesterday who understandably sought to paint McDowell as the scrapper and Kaymer as the technician. “Martin used to do a bit of boxing, so I'm definitely not going down that line,” he laughed.

“Let's just say I'm glad we're going to be beating each other up with golf clubs this week — otherwise I would be losing that fight.

“But it's an interesting one. Put it in horse-racing terms, instead, and he's had a 25-length lead and I'm coming up fast on the inside rail. We've got one fence left and I feel I'm coming on strong.

“Four weeks ago, Martin was nearly a million Euros ahead and I didn't know whether I could catch him.

“But I won in Valderrama and then gave myself two other great opportunities to win. I'm bringing in a lot of momentum and feel like I'm the guy playing the best golf between us right now.”

Little wonder, therefore, that there was, at the very least, a sense of frost in the desert air when Kaymer and McDowell stood next to each other on Tuesday to receive their lifetime Tour memberships.

“Yeah, there was an interesting atmosphere,” said McDowell. “There was definitely a quiet stand off there. It's going to be an interesting battle.

“We've had similar-type seasons, great seasons, but we have contrasting styles as well. He's a powerful striker and I'm maybe more of a thinking golfer.”

Some would see the comparison in rather more stark terms. While Kaymer's talent has long been acclaimed, McDowell's was for so long overlooked.

But then he stepped through the wreckage of an icon to take his opportunity. Bending fenders, sliding doors.

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