Trophy joy fills G-Mac full of belief for Open mission
Having taken himself back into the top 150 of the world rankings with Sunday's win in the Dominican Republic, the race is on for Graeme McDowell to qualify for The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in July.
McDowell is now the World No.133 after his win at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, ending what he described as a "rough few years".
The Rathmore man had carded just two top-10 finishes since the start of 2017, let alone victories, and had plummeted 176 places down the world rankings from 81st to 257th.
As well as that, McDowell lost his PGA Tour card at the end of last year, and was only able to compete this season on a medical exemption due to a wrist injury sustained last January.
But on Sunday that was all put behind him. With a final round of 69 at Corales Puntacana, the 39-year-old won his first event since the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in 2015 and, in the process, earned himself a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, ending his worries about having to retain his card for next year.
It may have been a second-tier PGA Tour event - with the star names at the WGC Match Play Championship - but this was a huge win for the Ulsterman, who, on 18-under par for the week, held off Chris Stroud and Mackenzie Hughes for victory.
"This is big - big for the people who stood by me and the sponsors who stood by me. It has been a grind," said McDowell.
"It has been a rough few years. I'm really happy I got this done.
The win came courtesy of an absolutely stunning tee shot on the par-three 17th and a glorious six-iron to a tight pin that ended up only a few feet away and led to a birdie that put McDowell into an unassailable lead.
"I stood on the 16th and said to myself, 'You've got to do something that's tournament-winning' and that shot to 17 was tournament-winning level," he added.
"I'd been struggling with my medium-iron and long-iron play all week and it was a shot I'd been working on on the range over the last few days.
"It was a perfect six-iron for me, it was a perfect number for me and when it came off the bat I knew it was pretty good."
Now, with his future through 2021 secure and at 133rd in the rankings, McDowell can set his sights on making an appearance at Royal Portrush for the first Open Championship to be held in Northern Ireland since 1951.
He can do it one of several ways:
- By finishing in the top 20 of the FedEx Cup standings by June 23 - his win in the Dominican Republic took him up to 42nd.
- By climbing into the top 50 of the world rankings by May 26
- By qualifying through one of the various events that offer places for The Open to their highest non-qualified finishers, such as the Irish Open and Scottish Open on the European Tour or the Canadian Open, Rocket Mortgage Classic or John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour.
"We've got The Open Championship at Portrush, which is obviously on my radar," said McDowell, who last played at The Open in 2016.
"I'm getting myself a schedule mapped out for the next couple of years now where I can just settle down and start playing some golf, start playing the golf I know I can play because I haven't let myself do that lately.
"I put too much pressure on myself. (My caddie) Kenny's said to me, at some point, I was going to get tired of messing up, and this week I got tired messing up.
"I've never been to Atlanta, I've never been to the Tour Championship, the FedEx Cup Play-Offs. That's the big goal. That has to be the goal.
"This will free me up a lot to be able to play the schedule between now and July that I want to play that's going to help me achieve my goals."
This week he travels to the Valero Texas Open, where the winner gets a place at the first Major of the year, the Masters, which starts next Thursday.
Back-to-back wins would be the perfect way to celebrate.