Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards: Home is where the heart is for Graeme McDowell

Graeme McDowell displays his Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of 2010 award, announced last night at Ramada Plaza Hotel in Belfast.
Proud mum and dad Marian and Kenny McDowell collect son Graeme's Telegraph award at the Ramada Plaza last night.
Barry McGuigan chats to Stephen Ferris.

Graeme McDowell is one of Northern Ireland's greatest sportsmen. He would never say so himself, but believe me, he's up there.

Winning the US Open at Pebble Beach in June placed him amongst Ulster’s A listers.

The way he swatted away the challenges of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els in the final round was the stuff of legend.

As McDowell closed the tournament out for a famous win, he became the first European to win the US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 — FORTY years ago.

I don't believe UK wide he was given the credit he deserved for that outstanding achievement, but at least here in Northern Ireland his awesome effort has been recognised.

Not least with him being named Belfast Telegraph Sports Star of the Year for 2010 at last night's glittering awards ceremony at the Ramada Plaza Hotel.

With his US Open heroics added to his emotional and match defining brilliance in the Ryder Cup and other triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic, McDowell won the top prize at the Tele awards.

G-Mac could not attend last night's event, sponsored by Linwoods and supported by Sport Northern Ireland, as he was engaged in more heroics in a season opening tournament in Hawaii.

His mum Marion and dad Kenny were there to collect his trophy. Fitting really, because during an interview with Graeme at Rathmore Golf Club recently, he told me that without his parents none of his success would have been possible.

“Growing up in Portrush it was inevitable that I would play golf, but without what my parents did for me I wouldn't have gone on to do so well,” says the 31-year-old.

“It's made me very proud to be able to help them retire and give them the things they deserve in life. We come from a very humble background, a very working class background and my mum and dad worked very hard to give me everything that I wanted as a kid. They have been unbelievably supportive throughout my career.

“Back in the day I put a few miles on my dad's car and put a few dents and scratches in it and it's nice to repay him by giving him a nice car these days.

“One of the greatest moments of my career was winning Loch Lomond which was probably the first professional event my dad saw me win in 2008, and then having him there at Pebble Beach on Father's Day at the US Open victory was incredibly special. Moments I'll never forget.”

Those moments didn't just arrive out of the blue. They came after years of practice, starting at Rathmore Golf Club in his home town of Portrush.

There are some golf clubs that can come across as pretentious. Not this one. It’s down to earth, with no airs or graces.

You could say the same about McDowell.

“I was about seven or eight years old when I first played at Rathmore,” he recalled.

“I spent many hours here dreaming of being a great player and it is fantastic for me to come home and bring the sort of silverware that I've won in the last year back to this golf club.

“It makes me proud to be able to put them on the map and give them something to celebrate.”

Perhaps a reason why Graeme is considered the best putter in world golf now can be traced back to Rathmore and the practice putting green we're beside as this interview takes place.

“I stood a lot on that putting green and dreamt of having two putts to win a major championship and two putts to win a US Open, so for the dream to become reality at Pebble Beach was pretty special.”

McDowell's big hero as a kid was top Irish amateur golfer Garth McGimpsey.

Graeme was a tasty amateur himself and an outstanding collegiate golfer in America after leaving Queen’s behind for Alabama.

He recalled: “I was at Queen's, took my engineering exams and passed everything and then took temporary withdrawal from the course.

“I felt America calling me. College golf was something I really, really fancied and I wanted a shot at it.

“Sure, it was emotional leaving home for me and and my parents, though even now my mum still cries when I'm leaving to go off somewhere around the world.

“The three years that I spent there were the making of me. I grew as a person and as a player both physically and mentally. It was a turning point in my career.”

McDowell bettered the sensational college record of Tiger Woods in 2002. He also gained an American accent to go with his Portrush tongue, turned pro that year and promptly won the Scandanavian Masters.

Mixed years followed but he always had belief that he would break into the big time.

And so it proved in 2010 when he took golf by storm winning the US Open — “the first time I looked at the leaderboard on the final day was on the 11th”.

Graeme was looking at it a lot more during his other highlight of the year — the Ryder Cup, which came down to his singles match with America’s Hunter Mahan. McDowell, under intense pressure he had never experienced before, came through with the precious point to win the Cup for Europe.

“I've probably created a rod for my own back with being the 12th man and all that jazz but to have the opportunity to hole the winning putt was extra special.”

He quickly adds: “It wasn’t just me though — that was a team victory.”

McDowell is a guy everyone would like on their side.

He intends to set up the G-Mac Foundation in the autumn — a charity which will benefit “sick kids or simply under-privileged ones”. McDowell would also like to help MS (multiple sclerosis) charities. His mum suffers from the illness.

There is likely to be a cross-border dynamic with the Foundation. McDowell’s only religion is Manchester United.

“I know certain players take certain stances but I've always believed in sitting on the fence because I don't see where else I can sit. After I won the US Open I was British, I was Irish, I was this and I was that. In truth, my identity is difficult to pin down.”

What matters is that his talent is there for all to see. He'll continue to globe-trot his way to more glory. But for this Portrush native, home is where his heart is.

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