Graeme McDowell proud to play his part in 'home' Open
HAVING spent the best part of two decades in America, the accent has changed a touch, but Graeme McDowell is as much a part of the Portrush fabric as Barry's Amusements or Morelli's ice cream.
As a teenager, McDowell spent countless summer hours on the fairways and greens of Rathmore Golf Club working on his game and dreaming of one day competing for the sport's biggest prizes.
At 9.14am today, he will tee off on the first hole at Royal Portrush, just 500 yards away from the Rathmore clubhouse, as he begins his quest for Open Championship glory.
It is all a little surreal for the man affectionately known as Gmac, who is a veteran of 13 Open Championships and a Major winner, having claimed the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2010.
Despite that stockpile of experience, however, McDowell admits he has seen nothing like the atmosphere that has accompanied the build-up to the 148th Open.
“I think you get more of the size and the infrastructure that goes with this tournament – it's so enormous when you see it happening in your hometown,” he said.
“The infrastructure economically in Portrush, I've never seen the town looking so great. And just the buzz from the people, it's just been amazing the last few days.
“I expected a great welcome, I didn't expect the buzz from the fans, how genuinely happy and proud and excited they are to have this great golf tournament in this part of the world.
“I was on the first tee yesterday and it felt like there was 10,000 people there. I was a little nervous for a Tuesday. I'm going to feel a little fired up tomorrow morning.”
The return of arguably golf's biggest event has been in the pipeline for a great deal longer than a few days, with the Troubles and political instability in Northern Ireland meaning the event hasn't visited these shores since 1951, when Max Faulkner was crowned ‘Champion Golfer of the Year'.
McDowell wisely swerves questions about the non-golfing reasons for that absence, but his pride in playing some small part in bringing the Open back to “this part of the world” is more than evident, even if he didn't always believe it would happen.
“When I got out here on tour and started spending time at Open Championship venues and got familiar enough with [former R&A chief executive] Peter Dawson to give him a bit of a ribbing – it started off a joke – ‘why not Portrush?' Myself, Rory [McIlroy] and Darren [Clarke],” he said.
“And the reasons were infrastructure and this, that and the other. But the ball really started to get rolling when Padraig [Harrington] won his three Majors and then I won one and Rory and Darren picked up a Major each and the jokes turned serious.
“Then it was the Irish Open in 2012 when we broke the European Tour attendance record. I think the R&A couldn't ignore the fact that this could be a commercial success. The jokes became very serious. It was like ‘we can do this, we can pull it off'.”
Yet getting confirmation that the Open would take place at Royal Portrush was only half the battle for the town's most famous son, whose game went through an alarming dip for a couple seasons.
At the start of this season he knuckled down with the aim of playing his way into the field for this week, a goal achieved with a top-10 finish at the Canadian Open last month. The man himself freely admits he probably wouldn't have been able to stay in the area for the whole week had he not been playing, even though he was always due to be home for a charity commitment on Monday morning.
“Thankfully we'll never know the answer,” he said.
“We had the RNLI charity fundraiser Monday morning, which was fantastic, I had committed to that. My mom had arranged that one, so that's one of those you can't say no to – ‘yes, boss, I'll be there'.
“And then I had a couple of other small commitments early in the week. And I'd say obviously my plan was to do those and get out of here, because I couldn't stand to be here, it would be too bittersweet. It would be too tough to watch the guys go out there and compete on this place where I kind of learned the game.”
Learning the game is something he has done pretty well since those long summer days at Rathmore, and the grounded way he started out has stood to McDowell over the years.
“Rathmore is a local members' club,” he said.
“You have to live within the 30-mile limit signs of the town to be a member of Rathmore, the working man's club.
“My dad took the game up in his 30s. My dad had three jobs most of his life. And thankfully the game of golf was very affordable to him in his 30s. When he got the bug, he got it pretty hard. He brought his boys out on the golf course with him and they got the bug really quickly as well. So we were lucky, very fortunate that the game of golf was so accessible in this part of the world.”
In the part of the world the Open is being held this week, almost every golfer of a certain age has a story of the day they beat Graeme McDowell 10&8.
Those fictional beatings didn't ever put him off the game he loves, although reaching the heights he has weren't always seen as realistic goals.
“I just wanted to be a good golfer,” said McDowell.
“We grew up here, we didn't have a lot of exposure to pro golf in this part of the world. We had a lot of exposure to amateur golf. We had a great tournament here every summer, the North of Ireland. Then we had the British Amateur come here in '93, which I ‘signboyed' for most of the weekend. And I looked at those guys and realised that I wanted to be a great amateur player.
“And then when you become a great amateur player and you make a Walker Cup team, well the next level is pro golf. It probably wasn't until I went to college in the States and started to become a little bit better that pro golf just became the next automatic step.
“Like I say, I didn't grow up in my teens dreaming of sitting up here in front of you guys at The Open Championship one year. I didn't really have a concept for that. I just knew that I loved competing, I loved the game of golf and I wanted to get to the next level. And then all of a sudden the next level was the paid ranks and here we are.
“I got very fortunate. The game of golf has taken me some great places.”
It has now taken him back to where it all began, in Portrush, the home of Barry's Amusements and Morelli's ice cream.
And no matter who is crowned Open champion this weekend, McDowell will have played his part in weaving another layer of his hometown's fabric.