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The Winning Habit

How McDowell Got in the Groove by Dermot Gilleece

Posted May 21, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

Winning, we’re told, becomes a habit.  Graeme McDowell discovered this some years ago and he positively tingles from the feeling right now, with two tournament victories in the last four weeks. After becoming the first Irish winner of the RBC Heritage Classic at Harbour Town on April 21st, he went on to become the first Irishman to capture the Volvo World Matchplay title, in an unlikely, Bulgarian setting last weekend.

As a bright lad on and off the golf course, McDowell has always had the facility to make the best of the winning mood.  Armed with four A-levels as a schoolboy in Northern Ireland, he progressed to a master's course in mechanical engineering at Queen's University, before an American golf scholarship beckoned at the University of Alabama.  There, as a student of economics and engineering, he had six college wins during the season which ended in May 2002, starting with the Topy Cup in far-off Japan the previous September.  

He went on to claim a share of fourth place in the NCAA Championships, which meant that by the end of the campaign, he had become the undisputed number one amateur in the US, arguably in the world.  In fact he achieved such dominance in the US that his stroke-average of 69.86 for 43 rounds during his last season there, was a full stroke better than his closest rival and better even than the college record of no less a figure than Tiger Woods.  And he played a prominent role in the Walker Cup team which gained an historic victory for Britain and Ireland at Sea Island, Georgia in August 2001.

Along the way, McDowell became very comfortable with the process of winning, both in matchplay and strokeplay.  In fact during a two-year period from May 2000, he registered no fewer than 14 victories, nine of them at college.  The others were achieved in Ireland, notably the Leinster Youths, Irish Close Championship, Irish Youths, South of Ireland Championship and the World Universities title which he secured on the links at Castlerock, down the road from his native Portrush.  

"It meant that being in the lead in the Scandinavian Masters seemed normal," he recalled of his first European Tour success.  "I had got used to winning, whatever the circumstances."  That breakthrough victory, in August 2002, came in only his fourth tournament as a professional.  He had joined paid ranks the previous May, explaining: "I was still two semesters away from a degree at Alabama, but where my golf career was concerned, I felt I wouldn't be in such a good position again."

From there, however, his development seemed to come to a standstill.  Indeed a share of fifth place behind Padraig Harrington in the Deutsche Bank SAP Open TPC of Europe, was one of the few highlights of the 2003 season. And victory in the 2004 Italian Open seemed to spark another drought.  A familiar feeling gradually began to stay with him, however, when wins in the Ballantine’s Championship and the Scottish Open brought his first experience of Ryder Cup combat in the defeated European side at Valhalla in 2008.

The old competitive toughness was now allied to a greatly improved short game.  Missing the cut in his first US Masters appearance in 2005 had brought the stark realisation of just how much he needed to improve in this crucial area of the game.  All of which meant that when winning opportunities gradually presented themselves once more, he was capable of making the best of them, even at the highest level.

So it was that the Wales Open of 2010 was followed by the US Open at Pebble Beach in June of that year.  And after a wonderful, winning performance in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, he went on to crush Woods in a head-to-head in his own tournament at the end of a glorious year.

Referring to the Matchplay trophy and its list of former champions, he enthused: “Els, Montgomerie, Westwood, Ballesteros, Norman, Lyle, Faldo, Player, Palmer, it's just crazy stuff really. To thrust yourself into that - to have your name on a trophy this cool is pretty special. This is a special moment in my career, no doubt about it. Wins are super special.”

Then, with an eye on Merion in a few weeks’ time, he took additional pleasure in having beaten his young friend and rival, Rory McIlroy, to another coveted title. “Any time I can do something before him, it’s never a bad thing,” he said. “Every time he looks at the US Open trophy, he has to look at my name before his.  That’s nice.”  Indeed it is.

- Dermot Gilleece

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