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McDowell's triumphant US Open

Posted Jun 22, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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As a writer on Irish sport who became painfully familiar with the depressing concept of moral victories, I find it hard to comprehend the success of the country's tournament golfers over the last few years.  From a situation where Ireland had Fred Daly as a lone "major" winner since his Open Championship triumph of 1947, the country has now garnered four of the last 12.

This latest, a wonderfully resolute US Open triumph by Graeme McDowell, may have lacked the excitement of Padraig Harrington's three majors.  But there was no doubting its merit, given that such notables as Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods were left trailing in his wake.

Even 24 hours later, McDowell was still finding it difficult to imagine his final round of 74 being good enough to capture the blue riband of American golf.  He even went so far as to suggest on Monday that the course set-up didn't appear to be especially daunting.  So why was it that the US Golf Association, against the odds, succeeded in their perennial target of setting a test which will be accomplished by an aggregate score of level par?

"It had to be the difficulty of the greens," McDowell eventually concluded.  "By Sunday afternoon, they had become seriously firm."  In fact their firmness was such that Harrington talked afterwards about being able to hear his own footsteps.  This brought to mind one of Jack Nicklaus's more memorable comments.  When I asked the Bear if the mere touch of the putter blade to set the ball in motion, could be considered an actual golfing stroke in the strict sense of that term, he replied: "Absolutely.  Putting should be as much a test of nerve as of skill."

As the best putter at Pebble Beach over the four days of the US Open, McDowell proved the merit of this assessment.  The simple fact was that he had the courage and steadiness of nerve to find the hole where rivals were being made to look faint-hearted or even downright inept.  If we accept that a prime ingredient of capturing a major championship is simple, basic guts, then McDowell showed he had this priceless attribute in abundance.  

His father, Kenny, couldn't have been more proud of him.  And when we met in the player's hotel on Monday morning, he reminisced wistfully on the formative years of his son's golfing development.  At a cost of £1 a round, Kenny had visions of being doomed to the poorhouse in his attempts at finding a pitch and putt outlet for his two younger sons.  Then Dai Stevenson, the resident professional at Royal Portrush, offered him a deal: at a fee of £10, they could play "The Himalayas" for the season.

"When Graeme and Gary played 33 rounds in the first week, I considered it money well spent," he said with a chuckle.  "Mind you, Dai had other ideas about the deal."  Graeme was then nine, a year older than his brother Gary, and The Himalayas was the charming little nine-hole pitch-and-putt course attached to the Royal Portrush club.  Now, 21 years on, he couldn't have come of age in more impressive fashion than by becoming the first Irishman to win the US Open.  Indeed he is the first European to take the title since Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970.

The members of Rathmore Golf Club, who have access to the famous Valley and Dunluce courses, describe their club proudly as a working men's version of Royal Portrush.   And the club was founded as relatively recently as 1947, the year of Daly's triumph at Hoylake.  As it happened, the local hero was honoured with the captaincy of Rathmore in 1953/'54 and 1954/'55.   Indeed Daly, a Portrush native, went on to become the first professional to be granted honorary life membership of Royal Portrush, a distinction which has since been conferred on Darren Clarke. 

Kenny McDowell, who retired when his son won the Scottish Open two years ago, went on: "Once Graeme got out there on the pitch-and-putt course, you couldn't get him home.  As a keen golfer myself, this gave me great pleasure.  Mind you, it seems that the better Graeme's game has become, the more mine has been on the slide.  Old Father Time takes his toll."

He concluded: "For some previous tournament wins, Graeme put up a free bar at Rathmore.  God knows what's going to happen when we get home later this week.  But you can take it that there'll be a lot of celebrating to do."

Which is only right and proper.  For this particular son of Ulster has made a huge contribution to the future well being not only of golf in Britain and Ireland, but for the entire continent of Europe.  Which leads us to his next big target:  bringing the Ryder Cup back home as a member of the European side at Celtic Manor in October.

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