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Fans can give me a real spark: McDowell

Fired up: Graeme McDowell can’t wait to sample The Open on his beloved Dunluce Links
Fired up: Graeme McDowell can’t wait to sample The Open on his beloved Dunluce Links

By Brian Keogh

There was a plaintive cry from a leading Irish contender of yesteryear when The Open arrived and the inevitable question was asked.

"They're all here," he responded.

His form was great and he had confidence to burn, suggesting great deeds in the offing.

But when it came to the million dollar question - "So, can you win The Open?" - the sight of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson or Seve Ballesteros on the range sowed inevitable seeds of doubt.

"But they're all here…"

That was then, the era when Europe's top players caught sight of the stars and realised that it wasn't Christmas but time to talk turkey. The quest for the Claret Jug was upon them.

It's different now that Europe's best can look their rivals in the eye and the sense of history - clearly palpable in the heavy Antrim air as The Open returns like the prodigal son after a 68-year absence - appears to require an epic feat to match.

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All eyes are inevitably focused on Rory McIlroy, a four-time Major winner and former Open champion, who could not ask for a better stage to display his greatness - great form, a home crowd and a course that's ready made for him to display his otherworldly driving talents.

The list of rivals is a long one, from fellow power punchers such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm to brilliant technicians like Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, Justin Rose or defending champion Francesco Molinari, or fellow young guns such as Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele or Patrick Cantlay.

If the golfing gods fail to smile on McIlroy, there's no reason to believe that Shane Lowry cannot find his Major muse or that Padraig Harrington, the indomitable fighter, might not confound the odds and become the oldest Open champion.

But waiting in the wings is a Major winner who still recognises the course he made his childhood playground - a son of Portrush like Fred Daly, who has seen his own golfing mortality up close in recent years and found a spark to reignite his career.

Not only is Graeme McDowell one of the great home hopes this week, his brother Gary has been a greenkeeper at the club that was their home from home 30 years ago.

"It would be getting on for nine at night and they still wouldn't be home and Marian would be saying, 'They couldn't still be at the golf course?'" McDowell's father Kenny said when recalling those long summer evenings.

"And I'd be saying, 'I'll tell you where they will be. There is a big bush at the back of the 17th green on the Royal. I bet you they are there'. So we drove over and I flashed the car lights and Graeme's head popped up. 'Coming now dad, give us five more minutes'. They were knocking shots into the 17th."

The 17th and 18th are now home to the Spectator Village, but despite the new holes, the new tees and bunkers and the towering grandstands, McDowell still recognises the course like a man finding a long lost friend.

Despite just two top 10s in 13 Open appearances and the imminent arrival of his 40th birthday, the Dunluce is his 15th club.

Having lost his PGA Tour card last year and fallen to 262nd in the world just five months ago, he's hauled himself back from the brink of golfing irrelevance and plans to use the home crowd as his rocket fuel to the stars.

"The welcome I've received from the people this week has been epic," said McDowell, who knows that finding the ignition key will decide his fate.

"It's been amazing. So I think the visual I have is a Ryder Cup. I'm trying to picture the crowd as a Ryder Cup crowd, that they're all there to support me in a positive way."

Grouped with Schauffele and one of the title favourites in 2016 champion Henrik Stenson, he's the dream home champion should McIlroy fail to turn his incredible table-topping statistics on tour this year into birdies.

"Growing up here in the town of Portrush, I must have walked past the photo of Fred Daly with the Claret Jug in his hand about 10,000 times," he said of Irish golf's first Open champion and the picture that hangs in the Rathmore clubhouse, just 500 yards from the first tee.

"To have kind of gone through the ranks and turned pro and started playing Open Championships myself and to have played a small role, I guess, in getting the gears in motion again to get The Open Championship back here, it's a proud moment to see it come together."

With a sell-out 237,500 crowd set to make this the second best attended Open ever, he's bubbling with excitement.

"I've never seen the town look so great," he said. "And just the buzz from the people this week, it's been amazing the last few days.

"I was on the first tee yesterday, it felt like there was about 10,000 people on the first tee. Amazing atmosphere. A little nervous for a Tuesday, I couldn't believe it, really. And figured I'm going to feel a little fired up tomorrow morning on the first tee."

The course might have changed but it's still Portrush and he knows how to plot his way around and hole putts.

"Eighty-five per cent of the golf course remains exactly how I remember it," he said. "And I don't think you ever really lose the memory of the nuances and the bounces and the way the ground reacts around here.

"I feel like when I get going tomorrow, a lot of the competitive edge will come flooding back with regards how the ball really does feed and react around this golf course."

Harrington can see it too, describing the Dunluce as "a golf course that is not always taking from you".

It's a place, he said, where you can see your ball "sweep towards the flag" if you know its nuances.

Whatever about closure for years of violence in Ireland's troubled history, this Open Championship offers someone the chance to paint an enduring masterpiece on an enviable canvas and McDowell appreciates that chance more than most.

"My journey has been really about kind of facing the demons of mortality," he said of that sickening realisation last year that his career was petering far more quickly than he had imagined.

For Royal Portrush, for Irish golf, for Northern Ireland and Ireland, the return of The Open is a second chance to dream. They're all here. And they're all dreaming big.

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