PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — As a youngster, Graeme McDowell was not unlike any other kid with a passion for golf. While making his way around his home course, a hopeful youngster might dream of winning the Masters or the U.S. Open, or, in McDowell’s case, the Open Championship.
And always, the dream was at Royal Portrush.
There are many layers to the story of the Open Championship returning to Portrush for the first time in 68 years, but for McDowell, truly the only native son in the field, born and raised here along the Causeway Coast and Glens, and groomed to be a golfer in this venerable town, it can’t be more personal.
When McDowell teed off in Saturday’s third round of the 2019 Open, he could feel the collective ache of his fellow countrymen, who had to absorb the disappointment of watching what befell fellow countrymen Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke.
“We’re not robots; we hurt, and we hurt a lot sometimes,” McDowell said. “It’s a tough sport.”
Clarke, who now lives in Portrush and had the honor of hitting the first shot of the championship, was one stroke inside the cutline until he suffered a triple bogey on the home hole on Friday, ending his week in shocking fashion.
McIlroy, undoubtedly the nation’s best hope for bringing home the claret jug, came up one stroke shy of making the cut despite a furious inward rally that had the feel of a late-Sunday push for the title when all he was asking for was one more day. He was emotionally spent, nearly breaking down after coming so close to erasing his disastrous opening round that included a stunning quadruple bogey on the first hole and triple bogey at the last.
“Eighteen has been pretty cruel to all three Northern Irish lads this week,” McDowell said. “Hurt the boys badly, hurt us all badly, myself and Rory on Thursday, and I can’t imagine how Darren felt yesterday. I was sick for him.”
The crowd was 10-deep around the first tee for McDowell in Game 3 at 9:55 a.m. It would have been anyway, but this morning McDowell embarked as the Northern Ireland’s redeemer. And he knew it. “Obviously without Rory and Darren here people really focused on me this morning,” said GMac, 39, who now makes his home in Lake Nona, Fla. “And alongside Bubba Watson, of course, we pulled a huge crowd. It was an amazing atmosphere.”
Thanks to birdies on the final two holes, McDowell posted a three-under 68 on the Dunluce Links, a score that would not be bettered until nearly three hours later, when Danny Willett shot a 65 in Game 21.
We can’t be young again, but it’s a remarkable sensation to reach back for just one tingle of childhood, especially the farther we travel through time.
The score is always the thing in golf, of course, but it’s days like Saturday when it is not everything. McDowell had to wipe away tears on the first tee on Thursday. He watched how emotional McIlroy became late Friday when his determined bid went for naught.
“To watch him break down a little bit kind of felt like legitimized my tears in my eyes Thursday morning,” McDowell said with a grin.
McDowell didn’t have the same burden here as McIlroy. Instead, the meaning of this week was rediscovering a bit of his younger self and reveling in that feeling. We can’t be young again, but it’s a remarkable sensation to reach back for just one tingle of childhood, especially the farther we travel through time.
“Yeah, I grew up with a dream to play the Open Championship. I grew up with the legend of ’51 here,” McDowell said. “I walked past Fred Daly’s picture and Rathmore clubhouse with the claret jug in his hand many, many times. The Open Championship was something I was always aware of as a child.
“It’s obviously something I’ll look back on in the future and go, ‘That was a special week to be back here for the first time.’ Obviously hoping to be back here; not sure I’ll be back here much, but hopefully be back here a few more times the next 20 years.”
There is an inescapable sense of the fanciful to McDowell’s Open odyssey.
He might not have been here had he not willed home a 29-foot par putt on the 72nd hole at the RBC Canadian Open to earn one of the exemptions available at Hamilton Golf & Country Club. He had to survive his own triple bogey on the 72nd hole on Thursday, then covered the final four holes on Friday with four pars to make the cut on the number. The previous day, he played the stretch in five over.
“There’s been a bit of magic to the whole process, qualifying and everything that has happened this week,” he said while signing autographs for his compatriots. “It’s only just struck me how fortunate I am to be here at home playing in this Open, playing in front of these folks.”
And the magic just kept happening. His finish on Saturday was sublime, as good as any he could have conjured from his imagination.
He birdied the 17th from a few feet and then hit a wonderful drive on 18—the old 16th hole he knew from his youth—only to find the ball quartering over a sandy divot. The ball came off his 6-iron with almost no sensation.
“When I struck it, I didn’t actually feel any turf underneath. It felt like it kind of disintegrated a little bit underneath me,” he said. “In that scenario, you can’t tell if you've got ball first or not.
“The crowd told me it was pretty good.”
The roar from the grandstands hovering over the green delivered unmistakable news. He was close. Two feet. McDowell appeared to have air under his feet as he bounced toward the green. He negotiated the distance of his final stroke and acknowledged the crowd, standing, clapping, cheering, hoping he might linger there.
He wished he could. “It all went a bit fast,” he said. But at least there is tomorrow, another round, another chance to bask in memories while making new ones.
It has been a sentimental journey this week for Graeme McDowell. That’s not really news, not remotely unexpected. Still, rare is the man who gets to retrace his steps, feel the warmth of truly being home, and sense a familiar tingle of a childhood dream.
Few greater joys are we ever afforded.