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Five reasons Graeme McDowell's Saudi International success is so significant as Masters and Ryder Cup doors ajar

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Graeme McDowell's win at the Saudi International could open doors for the year ahead.

Graeme McDowell's win at the Saudi International could open doors for the year ahead.

AP

Graeme McDowell's win at the Saudi International could open doors for the year ahead.

Graeme McDowell's Saudi International success last weekend could fling open the gateway to a fruitful Indian summer in his career.

It's not long since the 40-year-old was a forgotten man in the top echelons of world golf, having dropped out of the top 50 in the rankings list way back in July 2015.

While McDowell did bag a PGA Tour victory last year at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, his very presence at that change event marked his fall down the golfing pyramid. While he was winning for the first time since 2015, the world's top 64 players were off at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

Such exclusions should be few and far between this year, thanks to a Saudi success that carries much more weight than his 2019 victory.

His weekend win was enough to catapult McDowell an astounding 57 places up the rankings to 47th, flying past the likes of Phil Mickelson, Ian Poulter and, most surprisingly, Jordan Spieth - the former world number one slipping to 55th.

And the rankings business is not just a glorified vanity project either. That all-important 50th place is the door to the golfer's promised land.

Here are five reasons why Sunday's win could be so significant:

1. First World Golf Championship appearance since 2016

First of all, it means Graeme is already guaranteed to be back at the prestigious World Golf Championship table this year.

The WGC events are the most sought-after in world golf. Well, after the majors, obviously. And probably The Players' Championship too - although Graeme was already assured of a spot there thanks to last year's PGA Tour win in the Dominican Republic.

After almost four years out in the cold, McDowell's victory in Saudi Arabia will yield an invite to July's WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind in Memphis.

If that tournament sounds familiar, it will be after the Rory McIlroy hype of last summer, when he led going into the final round, only to collapse to defeat to Brooks Koepka, who he is set to depose at the top of the world rankings in Monday's update.

McDowell used to be the big each-way bet in these WGC events, finishing top 10 in all four of the 2014 outings. Just two weeks after his last appearance, the Match Play in 2016, G Mac dropped out of the world's top 64 and hadn't again breached that mark until Monday morning.

The stellar field he beat in Saudi Arabia, including the likes of world number one Brooks Koepka and number five Dustin Johnston, meant the tournament was handed a high enough 'strength of field' rating to grant McDowell a guaranteed invite to Memphis.

It's been a long wait, but he's back in the big leagues.

2. More WGC invites will soon be in the post

By the time the St Jude rolls around, McDowell should already have two WGC appearances under his belt.

The first is just two weeks away in the WGC Mexico Championship. McDowell need only hold his position inside the world's top 50 in the next update - out on Monday - to rubber-stamp his spot in South America.

He will, of course, tee it up this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at the site of his 2010 US Open victory. While that gives G Mac another opportunity to forge his way further inside the top 50, the weighting of his recent victory should be enough to ensure there's no drop regardless of his Pebble performance.

After that comes the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play, at which McDowell is a two-time quarter-finalist, at Austin Country Club from March 25-29. In order to book his ticket, McDowell must remain inside the world's top 64 until March 16.

Again the weighting towards recent successes should be enough to ensure the Portrush man avoids missing out.

3. On course for a Masters return

McDowell will hope to secure another 'first-since-2016' by earning his spot at the season's opening major.

Once again it's the magical 50th spot in the world rankings that marks the cut-off. McDowell must still be inside it when the update is issued the week before the Masters, on March 30. He'll need another couple of impressive displays between now and then but, with his confidence in his form, he'll be optimistic about his chances.

"I really feel like I'm moving in the right direction," he said after his win on Sunday. "Kevin (Kirk - coach) said to me, "There's no reason why the best golf in your career can't still be ahead of you." I like that. I like that kind of idea. I like that focus."

4. Ryder Cup qualification or at least an ideal pick

If it's been a while since McDowell graced the field at a WGC event or strode the fairways of Augusta, it's been even longer since he donned the European logo.

Well, that's not strictly true - he was a vice-captain under Thomas Bjorn in 2018 - but nonetheless, he hasn't played in golf's biggest match in six years.

That could all be set to change if McDowell can continue the pace he set last week. If qualification closed now, McDowell would make it onto Padraig Harrington's team for Whistling Straits in penultimate place, having shot up 30 spots via his victory.

There is, admittedly, a long way to go before the mid-September closing date, but the nature of McDowell's win should at least make him a leading contender in the race for the three Captain's Picks, according to 2012 European skipper Paul McGinley.

"He has the Ryder Cup pedigree, a great track record, and he clearly still has the priceless ability to perform under pressure. He'd be the ideal partner for one of the rookies," McGinley said.

5. European Tour Final Series

The Race to Dubai's top 70 golfers will make it through to the European Tour's Final Series - this side of the pond's answer to the PGA Tour FedEx Cup Play-Offs.

Interestingly, only 886.3 Race to Dubai points would have been enough to secure a spot last season. While McDowell, of course, will play more in the US than he does in Europe in the interim, he is already on 710 points this season - more than double what he made last term.

Going by last year's figures, it would take something unfortunately spectacular to deny him a place at the Turkish Airlines Open, the Final Series opener, in November.

And one more thing...

News of golf's impending review into equipment could potentially be welcomed more by the 40-year-old McDowell than his big-hitting compatriot Rory McIlroy.

The R&A and the USGA have announced the latest findings of their Distance Insights Project, highlighting concerns over the consistent increases in average hitting distances on tour.

Across both main tours, those have risen at a rate of one yard per year since 2013, with the top 20 hitters topping 310 yards on average with a driver last year, McIlroy second on the list.

Equipment Standards teams have now been instructed to conduct a 'broad review' of club and ball specifications.

Belfast Telegraph