CHAMPIONS
Win at Pebble Beach was the highlight of a dream season for Northern Irishman May 1, 2011 By Ken Klavon, USGA

Reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell got a chance to play a practice round at Congressional Country Club prior to U.S. Open Media Day on May 2 at the Bethesda, Md., club. (John Mummert/USGA)

Bethesda, Md. – Graeme McDowell knows this much is true: he two-putted from 20 feet to win the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links.

Then, suddenly, his mind faded to black.

McDowell’s highlights that week consist of apologizing to his dad, Kenny, while going to the first tee on Father’s Day. He tried explaining to his dad that he didn’t have a gift for him. His emotional father told him through tears “to get me that U.S. Open Trophy. That’ll do me [fine].” McDowell recalls cruising along at Pebble Beach being in control of his emotions, grateful that Dustin Johnson entered the fourth round with the lead. Come again?

“Sunday was different for me. ‘Dustin, you can have the lead,’ I felt. I earned my stripes. Let him sleep on the lead like I did. Let him [Johnson] feel the pressure, feel the media pressure. I was slipping under the radar,” the amiable, yet quietly confident McDowell said at Congressional Country Club during U.S Open Media Day on May 2.

 

McDowell, also known as “G-Mac,” remembers feeling befuddled when he saw his Saturday tee time, scheduled for 3:50 p.m. PDT. That would be 27½ hours from when he completed Round 2. He also knew that three of the top golfers in the world – Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods – the same three who between them had 184 victories and 21 majors, were in hot pursuit. That would be enough for many players to crumble under the pressure. The Northern Irishman, for whatever reason, wouldn’t bend. He also refused to scoreboard watch. Not until the 10th hole on Sunday, after he had passed 54-hole leader Johnson and held a two-stroke advantage on the field.

 

“To play steady and to withstand some tough holes the way Graeme did it and to come out on top, he played some great golf,” said Mickelson, who went on to share fourth place with Woods.

But after holing out on 18, which led to him hoisting the U.S. Open Trophy, McDowell’s mind surprisingly went blank. It wasn’t until several weeks later during the British Open at St. Andrews that the enormity of winning at Pebble Beach came flooding back. On the fourth fairway, his eyes welled up. No one saw.

“When I look back at the pictures, I’m holding the [U.S. Open] trophy instinctively, like I was meant to win,” said the 30-year-old McDowell. “I just don’t remember it. It just doesn’t look like me. I remember when the ball went in, but I can’t remember anything else after that. … It’s probably been the fastest 10 months of my life. It never gets old hearing that you’re the U.S. Open champion. It still gives me goosebumps.”

With the year he had, one would be hard-pressed to forget any of it. Two weeks before winning the U.S. Open, McDowell had captured the Celtic Manor Wales Open by three strokes with weekend rounds of 64-63.

The U.S. Open victory followed. The triumph was historic because the same tired refrain – the last European to win the championship was Tony Jacklin in 1970 – could be rewritten. Moreover, McDowell became just the second player born in Portrush to win a major. The other was Fred Daly, winner of the  1947 British Open.

Last September, McDowell added another accomplishment to a burgeoning resumé when he clinched the point that reclaimed the Ryder Cup for Europe by holing a clutch birdie to defeat Hunter Mahan.

Drawing comparisons between the U.S. Open championship and Ryder Cup, McDowell described the U.S. Open as a controlled emotional release, whereas the Ryder Cup allowed him to let it all hang out via high-fives, fist-bumping and outward bursts of celebration.

But it’s the Open that has left him wanting more where memories are concerned. He always dreamed of winning the U.S. Open when he and his brothers grew up playing Rathmore Golf Club in Portrush. To his credit, he never gave up on the dream. After getting through high school, he made inquiries about perhaps playing collegiately in the U.S. His first U.S. trip was to the University of Alabama-Birmingham. It was all he needed to see. McDowell starred for the Blazers from 1998 to 2002, becoming an All-American and claiming the prestigious Haskins Award as the outstanding collegiate golfer his senior year.

Leading up to the U.S. Open win, McDowell had shown flashes of promise. After turning pro in 2002, he won the Volvo Scandinavian Masters in just his fourth tournament. Another victory followed in 2004 and he finished sixth on the European Tour Order of Merit. In 2005, he divided his time between the European Tour and PGA Tour, even though he wasn’t a full member of the latter. McDowell managed two top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, which included a runner-up showing at the Bay Hill Invitational in his adopted hometown of Orlando, Fla. It led him to become fully exempt on the PGA Tour in 2006. After failing to finish in the top 150 in 2006 on the PGA Tour, McDowell returned to the European Tour in 2007.

A year later, he claimed the Ballantine’s Championship in Korea and then the Barclays Scottish Open. He earned 2½ points for Europe at the 2008 Ryder Cup and finished the season fifth on the Order of Merit.

Last year, coming off the win at the Celtic Manor Wales Open, McDowell felt like he was in a groove. He came into the U.S. Open feeling as though the cool misty weather had been brought in from Portrush. It made him comfortable. He was tied for 10thafter shooting an even-par 71 on Thursday. A second-round 68 bolted him into the lead. He was even par through three rounds and earned a spot in the final pairing with Johnson. To stay within the moment, he would remember things he had discussed with sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who works with many professional golfers. One goofy thought rose to the forefront as he was about to strike his first putt on the 72nd hole.

“I had stood on many greens during the week and I had one unbelievable thought on 18,” said McDowell. “I told myself, ‘At least if you three-putt, you’re going to be in a playoff.’ That thought relaxed me a ton.”

On May 2, McDowell played Congressional in anticipation of the championship that will commence June 16. He commented on the risk-reward holes and how long Congressional played that day. There are tricky contours to the greens, which are expected to run about 14 feet on the Stimpmeter. In any event, he plans on blocking out last year’s Open and starting anew. That’s the strategy.

“I’ve defended titles but never a major title,” said McDowell. “When the gun goes off that Thursday, it’s no longer my title. I have to go out and win it back.”

Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. E-mail questions or comments to kklavon@usga.org. 

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