A year ago at this time, Graeme McDowell could sink into a couch at a coffee shop or slide onto a barstool and order a pint nearly anywhere in the world, and only the most ardent golf fans would notice. “I come from a normal family,” the Irishman said Monday, and he has always considered himself a normal guy.
As he said those words, though, McDowell stood on the deck of the clubhouse at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, the demanding Blue Course spread out behind him. He clutched the trophy he won a year ago at Pebble Beach, the one that signifies he is the U.S. Open champion. In June, he will play Congressional in pursuit of that trophy again. But he spoke Monday as both a recognizable major champion and someone who has missed three of his last four cuts, simultaneously a golfing star and a struggling player.
“I’ve got no God-given right to come here in six weeks’ time and feel like I have a great chance to defend,” McDowell said.
Coming off a dream year in which he won his first major and secured the clinching point for the victorious European Ryder Cup team, McDowell embodies the current flux at his sport’s top levels. Tiger Woods, once the no-brainer favorite in every event he entered, hasn’t won a major since June 2008, hasn’t won a tournament of any kind since November 2009, and isn’t able to play for right now because of injuries to his left knee and Achilles’ tendon. Since Irishman Padraig Harrington won the British Open and the PGA Championship in 2008, the past nine majors have been won by nine different players. Only two of those players — Phil Mickelson and Angel Cabrera — own more than one major title.
Thus, in recent major championship play, anonymity has trumped accomplishment as a predictor of success, leaving Congressional’s third Open wide-open. McDowell was an established player when he beat Frenchman Gregory Havret by a shot last year at Pebble Beach, but he was hardly a marquee attraction. The next three names on the leader board — Ernie Els, Woods and Mickelson — have combined for 21 major titles. Havret was ranked 391st in the world rankings at the time; McDowell used the win to climb to 13th, then a career high.
From there, though, McDowell rolled. The Ryder Cup clincher, secured over Hunter Mahan, meant “a couple of my very ultimate goals” had been rolled into one season. In December, McDowell beat Woods in a playoff at the unofficial event Woods hosts in California. Such performances make it no surprise that he’s now ranked fifth in the world.
But Monday morning, as he navigated his way around Congressional for the first time in a practice round — he found the 7,574-yard layout difficult, but praised its “old-school” feel — he played as someone currently searching for his best form. In his past six events, McDowell has struggled off the tee and finished no better than tied for 42nd. Contending in the Open again seems a long way off.
“I’ve certainly experienced a bit of the rougher side of the game at the minute,” McDowell said. “It was all so easy there at the end of last season and the start of this year. It was top 5s and top 10s for fun. The game can beat you up sometimes, and I’m certainly starting to appreciate the good times now. . . . Every now and then, you need a bit of a kick in the butt in this game. I feel like I’ve had that the last couple months.”
That does not, however, take away from McDowell’s immense enjoyment of his time as champion, “probably the fastest 10 months of my career, of my life,” he said. Yet it has taken adjustments in time management, in decision making, in how to say, “No.”
“The important thing is I retain some sort of realism,” he said.
Though he bases himself out of Orlando, McDowell still likes to escape back to the north coast of Ireland to play golf with his father and brothers. There, near his home of Portrush, he can “go for a pint afterwards, and just chill and be a normal person, and go sit in a coffee shop and read a paper and put my feet up.”
As he has discovered, being a known commodity is work — not unpleasant, but work nonetheless. And in less than two months, there’s no telling which player will join McDowell in discovering all that success brings.
“It’s important that I get to the first tee on a Thursday and be enjoying myself and wanting to play the game,” he said. “You don’t want to get in position where you’re chasing yourself around the world — chasing opportunities, chasing golf tournaments — and you start to kind of begrudge the game a little bit.”
U.S. Open Note: All regular-admission tickets for the Saturday and Sunday rounds of the Open are sold out, the USGA announced Monday. Tickets remain for first- and second-round play on Thursday and Friday — June 16 and 17 — but the USGA described their availability as “limited.” Tickets are still available for the June 13-15 practice rounds. All tickets can be purchased at usopen.com.