After winning the Scottish Open, the Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell aims for glory at Royal Birkdale.
McDowell gears up for a reality check
LOCH LOMOND // Being able to congratulate a professional sportsman in the immediate aftermath of victory remains a moment to be cherished. One can only dream of what it must have been like to shake hands with Muhammad Ali after he halted Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight boxing title in 1964, or being on the scene to congratulate Pele after his Brazil side knocked four past Italy in the 1970 World Cup final.
One of my colleagues on this organ even met David Beckham before the then Manchester United player handed him the European Cup to hold while he signed a programme after their win over Bayern Munich nine years ago. Greeting the affable Graeme McDowell in person after his win at the Barclays Scottish Open may not rival any of the above, but it still felt a proper way for one to depart this wonderful tournament on Sunday night.
The Northern Irishman deserved to cart off all the plaudits, as well as a 500,000 pounds (Dh3.6m) cheque, after finishing with a final-round 68 to close down this competition courtesy of a 13-under par winning total. He finished two strokes clear of South Africa's James Kingston, and became only the second Irishman to win the Scottish Open after David Feherty in 1986. McDowell admitted that he was as "nervous" as he had ever felt in his career, and said he planned to have a "quiet one" on Sunday night before flying to Royal Birkdale to begin preparations for this week's Open championship.
He was entitled to a period of solace after emerging from a baying pack to consolidate his place in Europe's Ryder Cup team. Ireland have a rich heritage in the game's biggest team event. McDowell grew up with memories of his compatriots shining in it. Eammon Darcy holed a crucial putt on the 18th in a singles match against Ben Crenshaw that allowed Europe to win the trophy for the first time in the US in 1987.
Then there was Christy O'Connor Jnr's thumping iron shot to the heart of the last hole at the Belfry two years later as Europe regained the trophy, and even Philip Walton's winning role in the 1995 European victory. Paul McGinley, Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke have kept the Irish flag hoisted high in more recent times, and McDowell is aiming to extend that tradition. This year's Ryder Cup will be held at Valhalla in the US in September and, at times on a mystical final day in Scotland, McDowell seemed to be guided by Odin.
"I put the Ryder Cup up there with winning majors," he said. "It is something I have always wanted to do. "The Irish affinity with the Ryder Cup is pretty special. We have had so many Irish guys doing so well in it over the years. To tee it up in Valhalla will be a dream come true." McDowell's first priority is the Open, where he will begin the first round on Thursday as a 33/1 shot. One could forgive him if he suffers a mental relapse, but Tiger Woods has set a standard for every golfer that deems it possible to win, and keep on winning.
"It is the biggest tournament in the world," claimed McDowell. "I should be able to get myself up for it, but if things don't work out then so be it. "Hopefully, I've left something in the tank." Loch Lomond is the sight of a Scottish clan, but it was several members of the McDowell clan, led by his parents, who traipsed around this region willing him on. "We're a close family. I speak to my dad every day," he revealed. "I have a great family, and moving back home to be close to them has been one of the keys in my success, because it means I can get back to reality.
"We live in a bit of a fantasy world in playing golf every week, so getting back to reality has been so important." The golfing circuit will not see the astounding Loch Lomond for another year, but the public are likely to see a lot more of McDowell. If his Scottish Open play is replicated at stubborn venues such as Birkdale and Valhalla, those Irish eyes will continue to smile for some time yet.