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Graeme McDowell’s career is back in gear — at just the right time

June 7, 2019

When Graeme McDowell surprised the golf world by winning the 2010 U.S. Open, he was a twentysomething swinging bachelor just beginning his ascent into a world-class player. Now the Ryder Cup star returns to another Open at Pebble on the cusp of turning 40, married with two kids and a stepdaughter, a partner in a thriving business (Nona Blue, an Orlando tavern) and having just brawled his way out of the longest slump of his career. “It’s definitely been the fastest and craziest ten years of my life,” McDowell said recently in his lilting Northern Irish brogue. “What a ride it’s been. And I’m not ready for it to be over just yet.”

McDowell’s breakthrough at Pebble Beach actually began two weeks before the Open, when he went 64-63 on the weekend to win in Wales, his fifth victory on the European Tour. He spent the ensuing three or four days “celebrating with the boys” at his home base in Lake Nona, Fla. McDowell’s game was so sharp and his confidence so palpable that Ricky Elliott, a pal who now caddies for Brooks Koepka, was all set to plunk down $500 for G-Mac to win the U.S. Open at 66-1 odds.

“I said, ‘Listen, I’m feeling good, but I’m probably not going to win,’” McDowell recalls with a chuckle. “‘Just to be safe, place the bet each way to cover your a–.’”

Pebble turned out to be the perfect venue for McDowell’s efficient game, built as it is on precise iron play and deadly putting. After a second-round 68, he held a two-stroke lead. That night he strolled into Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel, which McDowell calls “the unofficial caddie headquarters of the U.S. Open.” Billy Foster, who was then looping for Lee Westwood, broke out into song: Queen’s “We Are The Champions.” That tune played in McDowell’s head throughout the fraught final rounds.

The Sunday leaderboard was spectacular, with Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Dustin all factoring in the drama. But only McDowell refused to crack. He became the first European winner of our national championship since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and that night wound up, inexorably, in a boozy celebration at Brophy’s. “When I got behind the bar and started spraying people with the soda gun,” says McDowell, “I think that’s when my friends started saying, ‘Okay, let’s get this guy back to the hotel.’”

McDowell made another run at the 2012 U.S. Open, narrowly missing a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to fall one stroke short, and he kept piling up wins, rising as high as fourth in the World Ranking. Along the way he hired the former Kristin Stape to decorate his house in Lake Nona, and then wound up marrying her, in late 2013. A daughter and a son soon followed. “Fatherhood is the greatest thing in the world,” he says, “but it was certainly an adjustment. Golf very quickly was no longer the most important thing in my life.”

Pebble Beach turned out to be the perfect venue for McDowell’s game: precise iron play and deadly putting.

Add in swing and equipment changes, and by early 2019 McDowell was on the outside looking in, with tenuous Tour status and without a spot in the field at the upcoming Open Championship in his hometown of Portrush. All this was the backdrop to the explosion of goodwill that followed his PGA Tour win in the Dominican Republic in March 2019, McDowell’s first worldwide victory since 2015. “It was relief more than anything,” he says. “I was like a flame flickering. I was feeling my mortality. I was becoming aware that all of this could go away very quickly. So to finally win again, a giant burden has been lifted.”

Just like that, McDowell’s expectations are very different for Pebble Beach (champs are exempt into the ensuing ten U.S. Opens) and Royal Portrush (where he has a golden opportunity to play his way into the field at this week’s Canadian Open). Is it time to run out and start placing bets again?

“Well, let’s not get carried away,” McDowell says. “But I was never going to be satisfied returning to Pebble as a ceremonial golfer. It’s not the legacy, it’s not the impact I want to have in this game. I know I have one more big run in me. I have a vision of getting back to the top of the game one more time. How cool would it be if Pebble Beach is once again the launching pad?”

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