Graeme McDowell discusses his ascent, toughness and secret weapon

Wednesday May 4th, 2011
McDowell won his first career major at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Kohjiro Kinno/SI

If Graeme McDowell thought he might escape his newfound fame during a recent trip to Bermuda, he was on the wrong tropical island. Cameras snapped. Reporters scribbled. PR types tugged on his shirtsleeves. Even Brian Lara, the West Indian cricket legend, wanted a piece of G-Mac, inviting the golfer to join him for a few sunset cocktails. "There's no doubt that people know me now," McDowell said moments after two elderly ladies approached him for a photo in a dimly lighted corner of a hotel lounge. "I'm getting recognized in places that I wouldn't expect to get recognized—airports, bars, just random places."

\nWinning does that to an athlete, but it's the way McDowell is winning that really impresses: outlasting a stacked leaderboard on a pressure-cooked Sunday at Pebble Beach; dropping a 15-footer in Wales with an entire continent leaning on him; slamming the door on a briefly resurgent Tiger Woods—at Tiger's own tournament. McDowell is playing freely and fearlessly, with a funky, sawed-off swing shaped on the windblown links of Northern Ireland, a savviness gained from traveling the globe, and a disposition that allows to him to step on his competitors' throats by day and then, assuming they're not squirreled away in the gym, buy them a Heineken by night. "You can't go 110 percent all the time," McDowell says. "The guys who do might be successful in the short term, but they won't have longevity in the game."

\nThe last 12 months have put you on the map in a big way. Which did more to elevate your profile: the U.S. Open or the Ryder Cup?
\nThe response after the U.S. Open was overwhelming, but the Ryder Cup seemed different somehow. The Ryder Cup is such a big deal, and it seems like it's watched by more people, especially with the U.S. Open being on [TV] late back home. It's tough to verbalize. People were congratulating me for winning the U.S. Open and they were thanking me after the Ryder Cup. But both were huge profile-builders if you want to look at it from that perspective.

\nLet's start with the Open. Nobody, including yourself, exactly lit up Pebble Beach that Sunday. But looking back now, can you pinpoint the moment when you thought you might win?
I made a great eight-footer on No. 8 for par, down the hill, left to right. I bogeyed nine from a straightforward position in the semi-rough. And I bogeyed 10 from the middle of the fairway. Those bogeys rocked me a little bit. At that point, I hadn't looked at one leaderboard yet, so I hit a great tee shot on 11 right down the middle of the fairway, and as I walked off the 11th tee, there's a huge leaderboard right there, and I had a look up. I needed to know; I needed something to rejuvenate me. I looked up and I saw that no one was making a charge. I was still two shots ahead and that refocused me. From there on in, I played great.

\nIn your post-round interview, you jokingly said, "There might be a few beverages consumed from this trophy this week. Goodness knows when I'm going to sober up." Take us through the revelry that night.
\nWe got done with our media about 9:30. I was still in the players' complex on the back of the range. We had some food and a couple glasses of champagne and a few beers there. Then we went back to the hotel and dropped off the trophy. Then we ended up at an Irish pub in the middle of Carmel and partied into the wee small hours. We ended up back at the hotel and a few people posed for some snaps with the trophy there. It was a good night. I was so high on adrenaline that a few glasses of champagne quickly got multiplied. I was in good form.

\nYou're not afraid to enjoy yourself. Do you think too many pro golfers take the game too seriously?
\nThere's no doubt. It is a game to be taken seriously—we play for millions of dollars— but there is a time and a place for it. When you get out there and are in the mix and under pressure, you've got to learn that the sport's not life or death. You've got to find a balance in your life between, yes, taking it seriously, but then also knowing how to let it go. I think the top players in the world have an idea how to practice hard, play hard, and then have a break.

\nYou won the U.S. Open by playing solidly if unspectacularly. Your Ryder Cup singles match against Hunter Mahan, highlighted by your clutch birdie at 16, was far more electric. Can you compare the emotions you felt down the stretch of each event?
\nThe two are very difficult to compare. On the one hand you've got Pebble Beach, you've got the U.S. Open, you have a tough, grinding day against Tiger, Ernie, Phil. It wasn't my best day of golf—I shot plus-3. But it's a U.S. Open setup on a Sunday afternoon. It's the toughest test you'd ever want to get. I played solidly, especially the last six or seven holes. I was very happy the way I played. The way I felt coming down the stretch, I felt emotionally very calm and very in control of my golf game. My nerve level was quite calm—5 or 6 out of 10. And then you fast forward four months to the Ryder Cup—the way I felt that last 8, 9, 10 holes there was incomparable, because all of a sudden the success or failure of the other 11 guys on my team, the team captain, the whole of Europe, really, that cares about the Ryder Cup, was on my shoulders. The intensity level was magnified 12, 15, 20 times.

\nDid you request to play the anchor match in Wales?
No, but I had a conversation with one of the assistants—I think it was [Paul] McGinley—and he asked me where I'd like to play on Monday. And I said to him, "Give me a really smelly, tough, manoa- mano, dog-eat-dog game." Because I remember two years ago hearing [Padraig] Harrington say the same thing and I thought, "You know what, that guy's tough." So when I got the opportunity, I kind of felt the same way. I thought, "I'm ready to be tough."

\nBut at the time, with Europe holding a three-point lead, the anchor match seemed unlikely to mean anything.
\nRight, I do remember feeling a mixture of disappointment because I didn't think I was going to be part of the big show. I thought the guys would take care of business and again, like Valhalla [in 2008], I'd be at the back of the field having no influence on this match. And then at the same time I felt a surge of excitement, thinking, "What if it does come down to me? What would that be like?"

\nYou found out when you made a nervejangling birdie putt on 16 to go 2 up against Mahan. With at least one more hole still to play, how difficult was it to bottle your emotions at that point?
\nYeah, I had just made the 15-footer of my life to win the hole. I just remember the elation and the chaos and the adrenaline that went through my veins. I stormed up to the next tee box and Monty [European captain Colin Montgomerie] is there telling me to calm down. So I'm trying to regroup and hit the next shot. I managed somehow to find the edge of the green on 17. [After Mahan flubbed his second shot] obviously all that was left was for me to cozy one up there. The rest was just chaos when everybody engulfed the green. I can barely remember the next 10 or 15 minutes. It was the most amazing 10 minutes of my life.

\nWhat's been your biggest splurge since winning the Open?
\nWell, my new house in Lake Nona [a golf community in Orlando] was pre-Open, so that's kind of sucking up my cash right now. It's a 5,500-square-foot, single-story house that backs onto a nice lake. I also ordered a new Range Rover Sport.

\nLake Nona is full of Euros, right?
Yeah, you've got Poults [Ian Poulter], Rosey [Justin Rose], Peter Hanson, Edoardo Molinari, Oliver Wilson, Henrik Stenson. There are lots of guys running around there.

\nIs it true that you and Poulter shop together?
We do like to shop—clothes, electronics, cars, wine, watches. You know, the good stuff in life. We try not to get too distracted, though. [Laughs]

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\nThe younger European players seem a tighter-knit bunch than their American counterparts. Why is that?
\nOn the PGA Tour the travel is much easier. You're always within a three- or four-hour flight of the tournament venue, so guys travel with their families more. Plus there might be 5-10 official hotels for a certain week, so guys are all spread out. Whereas in Europe, if we're playing in Shanghai there are only a few London-Shanghai flights every couple of days. So you're going to see half the European Tour on that flight. And there are only going to be two official hotels, so most of the guys will be in one hotel. We all travel as one big traveling circus, and the logistics of the Tour mean guys can't travel with their families everywhere. So I think culturally, the tours are very different. We socialize a lot more in Europe not because we're necessarily more social people—that's just the way our tour is set up.

\nDo you hope to have a wife and kids to travel with some day?
\nYeah, absolutely. I'd love to get married. I'd love to have kids. It just hasn't been conducive to my lifestyle the last five years. I've been a busy man. I've spent a lot of time on the road. I've been pretty nomadic in my existence. When my weeks off came around I'd spend a lot of time between Orlando and back in Ireland. I've dated many girls, of course, but it's very difficult to develop relationships with these girls because I'm traveling so much. Nothing's felt right, but having a family is something I definitely want to do in my life.

\nUnlike other European stars such as Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, you decided to take up PGA Tour membership in 2011. Why?
\nI feel like I'm quite different from a few of the guys—the Rorys, the Lee Westwoods, the top players in Europe—because I went to college in the States and I have a home in Orlando. I had my card in '06, but then I was hurt and I didn't play very well. So I really feel I haven't had my chance to play a full season here yet. It's a non-Ryder Cup year, so I see it as just a perfect opportunity to go out and check it out. I don't know if it's going to be right for me but I really want to give it a go. I understand where these other guys are coming from, though. Lee Westwood became the No. 1 player in the world not being a member of the PGA Tour. Why change that?

\nHave you felt any resentment from your peers on the European Tour?
\nNo, because I'm not turning my back on the European Tour. It will still be my home tour. And I will continue to support it. So, no, there's no resentment from the players. They understand the way of the world right now.

\nDo you suspect some of the other top Europeans will follow your lead?
\nThere's a lot of top Europeans who have designs on playing the PGA Tour. There's no doubt about it. I think a lot of people feel that's the tour that has the cash. That's the tour that has the best players in the world. Globally the economy is tough right now, so you've got to go work where the economy is strong. And there's no doubt the PGA Tour is the strongest tour right now.

\nYou grew up in Northern Ireland, in Portrush, during the height of the political and religious strife there. Were you exposed to any terrorism?
\nA couple of policemen were shot in my town when I was 8 or 9 years old and a pretty substantial bomb went off in a town about five miles from us when I was about 10 or 11. But that's the only terrorism I was exposed to locally. I come from a mixed background. My dad's Protestant. My mum's Catholic. And I come from a very mixed town religiously. People get on with each other. I really wasn't brought up with that us-against-them kind of vibe. I was very sheltered from it all.

\nMost golf fans probably think of you as Irish, even though Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain. Do you give much thought to your national allegiance?
\nI grew up wanting to wear the Irish blazer, the green and the gold. I was brought up as a Protestant, so that may have been frowned upon 40 years ago, but I didn't know any different, and it didn't matter to me what religion I was, or what religion my teammates were. I wanted to play golf for Ireland. To me, sport has no religious boundaries. It has no political boundaries. Sport is just sport. And I love the fact that golf unites Ireland, because people from all over Ireland care what I do and they're proud of what I do. And that makes me proud.

\nShould you qualify for the 2016 Olympics, you could elect to compete for either Ireland or Great Britain. Your pal and countryman Rory McIlroy has said that he would play for Britain. It sounds like you'd choose to play for Ireland.
\nIf I was good enough to be selected for both teams, then we'd have a dilemma. But I'd really play for any team that will have me. I've never been presented with that problem so far in my career, and until the Olympics come around in 2016, I'm not going to have that problem.

\nDid McIlroy's early success in some ways take pressure off you?
\nNo doubt about it. What he's done over the past few years has allowed me to fly under the radar a little bit. He's taken a lot of the press emphasis off me. He's one of my very good friends. I practice with him a lot. I firmly believe he's one of the most talented players I've ever seen. I think he's extraordinarily good, and I've tried to stay close to him because I hope some of his talent will rub off on me. I kind of joke that if I can pick up a few victories by slipstreaming him for the next 10 years, I would be happy. But now I've won the U.S. Open and away I go.

\nYou learned the game from your uncle, Uel Loughery. What is his teaching style like?
\nHe was a 3- or 4-handicap golfer with a great eye for the swing. He still coaches junior golfers to this day. He's not a PGA professional. He gives his time voluntarily to [Rathmore Golf Club]. And he's a hell of a coach. He was my main swing coach until I was 18 years old. So in a way I didn't have a very technical upbringing in the game. My golf swing is not particularly technically sound, but I have a very good understanding of the fundamentals of the game.

\nDo you think too many pros spend too much time obsessing over swing mechanics?
I do. I look at some of the friends I have who are teaching professionals and they know too much about the swing. I'm glad I don't know what they know, and I don't crave the knowledge of the technique that they have, because I don't want to analyze every shot that I hit. I want to know why I hit bad shots and that's all I want to know. There's a time and a place for technical practice, but there's also a time and a place for just golfing, for working the ball around, and scoring, and the art of the game. It's not about swinging the golf club perfectly.

\nIn 1998, you left Portrush for the Deep South when you enrolled at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. What was that transition like?
\nAlabama was a big culture shock. One of my resounding memories was walking into a Subway during my few months there with my big Northern Ireland accent on me, and trying to order a sandwich from some local Alabama girl. She didn't have a clue what I was saying, and I didn't have a clue what she was saying. I had to just point and say, "Give me one of those."

\nHow did those years change you?
Well, obviously it's responsible for this transatlantic accent I've got going on. [Laughs] It also turned me into the player that I am. I went out there as an okay amateur golfer. I was in the top 20 under-21 players in Ireland. In three years out there, I gained the maturity and the confidence and the game to get ready to turn professional. It was a big turning point in my career.

\nIn 2002, after winning your first European Tour event, in Sweden, you said: "Right now I would definitely get chewed up a bit [in the States]. A couple of years in Europe is going to teach me a lot about myself and how to take my game to the next level..." What did you learn about yourself?
\nI learned that you've got to learn how to be a professional golfer. I feel like when I turned pro I got thrust into a world of 30 weeks a year, plus mega-travel. The tournaments are Tuesday through Sunday, and you have to get your head around the golf course, the guys, the lifestyle, and everything that goes with it. It took me a long time to get my head around managing my time, getting my confidence, settling everything around me, on the course and off—caddies, coaches—all the mechanisms that the top players have running smoothly in the background. All those little things, the pieces of the jigsaw, have to fit together to be a top, top player.

\nIs that why it took you several years to truly break out?
\nMost definitely. I came out of college and was thrust on the professional scene. I had played one pro event in my life before that. Rory McIlroy had played multiple professional events. I want to say 15, 20, maybe more. Sergio Garcia: 15, 20, maybe more. These guys are pro-ready before they're pro-ready. These guys are bred as professional golfers. Ninety-eight percent of professional golfers who come out on Tour are not pro-ready. These are the guys who have to learn the ropes, who have to learn about themselves. That's the big thing: You've got to understand what it is that makes you tick, what you need to do to get yourself in a place where you get to the first tee on Thursday ready to play golf. You've got to understand yourself.

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