Graeme McDowell discusses his ascent, toughness and secret weapon

Graeme McDowell discusses his ascent, toughness and secret weapon

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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.”

Winning 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.”

The 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?

The 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.

Let’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.

In 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.

We 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.

You’re not afraid to enjoy yourself.
Do you think too many pro golfers
take the game too seriously?

There’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.

You 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?

The 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.

Did 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.”

But at the time, with Europe holding
a three-point lead, the anchor match
seemed unlikely to mean anything.

Right, 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?”

You 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?

Yeah, 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.

What’s been your biggest splurge since
winning the Open?

Well, 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.

Lake 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.

Is 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]

The younger European players seem a
tighter-knit bunch than their American
counterparts. Why is that?

On 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.

Do you hope to have a wife and kids to
travel with some day?

Yeah, 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.

Unlike other European stars such as
Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and
Rory McIlroy, you decided to take up
PGA Tour membership in 2011. Why?

I 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?

Have you felt any resentment from
your peers on the European Tour?

No, 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.

Do you suspect some of the
other top Europeans will
follow your lead?

There’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.

You grew up in Northern
Ireland, in Portrush,
during the height of the political
and religious strife there. Were
you exposed to any terrorism?

A 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.

Most 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?

I 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.

Should 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.

If 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.

Did McIlroy’s early success in some
ways take pressure off you?

No 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.

You learned the game from your
uncle, Uel Loughery. What is his
teaching style like?

He 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.

Do 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.

In 1998, you left Portrush for the
Deep South when you enrolled at the
University of Alabama-Birmingham.
What was that transition like?

Alabama 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.”

How 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.

In 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?

I 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.

Is that why it took you several years
to truly break out?

Most 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.