Graeme McDowell’s journey from a ten year old on the links terrain of Portrush, Northern Ireland, to US Open Champion at Pebble Beach, California, is undoubtedly one of supreme talent, self belief and hard work. But perhaps the most telling attribute of the man who ended Europe’s 40-year drought for a US Open Champion on Sunday night is a glint in the eye that reveals a born winner with an unerring ability to turn intense pressure into pure inspiration.
It is always difficult to pinpoint what the French so beautifully describe as ‘je ne sais quoi’. No matter what you call it, ‘G-Mac’, as he is known to everyone in the game, has always had that little bit extra about him. Take that aura of confidence and mix it with the down to earth roots of a modest upbringing in Portrush and you have one the game’s good guys.
Born on the north Antrim coast of Northern Ireland in 1979 to parents Kenny and Marion, the middle child of three brothers, Graeme picked up a golf club for the first time aged seven, when his dad would take Graeme and younger brother Gary to the local pitch-and-putt course. At the age of ten, the boys were allowed to join Rathmore, the golf club which shares the world-famous links of Royal Portrush.
It was there that Graeme mastered his craft, spending full summers at the golf club, honing the instinctive ball-striking talent and fearsome competitive spirit that would see him hold off the challenges of, among others, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els to win his first Major title at Pebble Beach.
In between smashing balls across the road from his family home and hoisting aloft the US Open Championship trophy (the first European to do so since Tony Jacklin in 1970), McDowell enjoyed a sparkling golfing ascent that peaked so spectacularly last week.
He quickly rose through the amateur ranks in Ulster, and soon set off for America and a scholarship in Birmingham, Alabama, where, in his last year at College, he won six out of eight tournaments and compiled a season average score of 69.6 that season broke an all-time record held by Tiger Woods and Luke Donald. Next up was a prominent role in a famous Walker Cup victory by the GB&I team at Sea Island, Georgia, in 2001.
He turned professional in May 2002, and within weeks completed a dramatic maiden victory in sudden-death at the Volvo Scandinavian Masters, his fourth outing on the European Tour. McDowell often looks back on that first victory as coming too soon in his career. He found it all too easy and was soon attempting to star on both The European and US PGA Tours but, despite claiming the 2004 Italian Open, the plan stalled and he came up short in his first attempt to break into golf’s elite.
The desire was still there though, and with a trademark grin, the boy became a man and assumed total control of his life and career, linking up Irish sports management company, Horizon, forging a powerful bond with one of golf’s most experienced caddies, Ken Comboy, taking a year out from club sponsorship to find his ideal manufacturer, Callaway, and going home to Portrush.
All of those brave decisions were vindicated in 2008 when McDowell stormed back onto the world scene with victories in the Ballantine’s Championship and The Barclays Scottish Open to cement a place in his first Ryder Cup Team. Europe may have lost The Ryder Cup at Valhalla, but aside from Ian Poulter’s unbelievable debut that saw the Englishman win four out of five points, McDowell was amongst Europe’s best players, fuelled by the unique, turbo-charged atmosphere.
It was at Valhalla where McDowell revealed himself to be a potential Major winner. The atmosphere at any Ryder Cup is the hottest in golf, and the man from Portrush absorbed every drop of tension and pressure and channelled it into his game.
He may not have the sheer confidence of Poulter, the presence of Woods, the magic of Mickelson or the pedigree of Els, but McDowell possesses a little bit of all the great players of the modern era, and the thing that seems to bring all of those facets together in his game is pure pressure. As the man himself said going into the final round at Pebble Beach: “If I get a chance on Sunday, I’ll be ready.”
Never before had he been more ready. McDowell travelled to America on the back of a supreme performance at The Celtic Manor Wales Open, where he posted final rounds of 64-63 to win over the Twenty Ten Course – venue for this year’s Ryder Cup – by five strokes.
He arrived at Pebble Beach, one of the game’s most brutal arenas, from Portrush in the form of his life, went toe-to-toe with the world’s best players and emerged as the last man standing. If you take a close look at McDowell posing with the US Open Championship trophy, you will notice a certain glint in his eye burning brightly.