Local lad is the toast of Portrush and Rathmore Golf clubs

Tue, Jun 22, 2010, 01:00

Paul Gallagherlooks at where it all began for the new US Open champion.

GRAEME McDOWELL was reared playing links golf along the rugged Antrim coastline at Portrush. At the age of 30 he came of age when transferring that experience and talent into Sunday’s career-defining major win on one of the most famous links terrains of them all at Pebble Beach.

His name is now etched among the greats but for the self-confessed “home bird” Portrush will always be his sanctuary. It’s where he feels most comfortable when away from the spotlight and among family and friends.

The new world number 13 led something of a nomadic existence when he joined the paid ranks in 2002 after a stellar amateur career drew to a close with his scholarship at the University of Alabama, where he won the Haskins Award the same year for most outstanding collegiate golfer in the United States and lowered Tiger Woods’ scoring average during a season he won six times.

McDowell won the Scandinavian Masters on just his fourth start as a professional and the individual with a penchant for fast cars quickly moved into the fast lane. He tried stints basing himself in Cardiff, Manchester and London but those residences never sat comfortably with him.

These days he has found the necessary balance with a “bachelor pad” penthouse apartment overlooking the strand on the east side of Portrush and also has an American base at the exclusive Lake Nona where he is currently building a new home.

“He’s just a regular guy around the club. Whenever he’s home he sticks the clubs over his shoulder and heads out for a game at the Dunluce just like anyone else, nobody really bothers him,” explains Gary McNeill, head professional at Royal Portrush.

Graeme and his brothers, George and Gary, who is part of the greenkeeping staff at Portrush, were introduced to the game by playing pitch-and-putt near Portrush with their dad Kenny before joining Rathmore Golf Club. To this day he has always phoned back to Rathmore to set up a round of drinks for everyone after his tour wins – it’s now six and counting.

While dad was with him in Pebble Beach and mum Marion in Spain, Gary was among the many gathered at the club and glued to the television before celebrating into the wee small hours.

Though he was made an honourary life member at Royal Portrush after the Scandinavia win, his affinity has always been with Rathmore, the club formed for the people of the town and situated several hundred metres from its more illustrious neighbour with its clubhouse adjacent to the first tee at the second Valley course.

“Graeme got straight back to Portrush after his win at the Wales Open earlier this month; it was the first time he was able to do that and brought us all out for a night out,” adds McNeill. “We went down to the Rathmore Wine Bar at the harbour and had a few beers and a bite to eat, that’s typical of him when he’s at home.

“Before our Christmas nights out we always speak to Graeme in advance to find out when he’s home. All our old assistants come back and we play for the ‘Caddieshack Cup’ then catch up over a pint afterwards. It’s still surreal to think we have a local winner of the US Open.”

Pádraig Harrington is still the benchmark when it comes to Irish major winners, but McDowell has joined an elite group and this win will undoubtedly serve as renewed inspiration for the likes of Harrington or Rory McIlroy, whom McDowell spends time with travelling to tournaments or playing practice rounds together.

McDowell isn’t due back to Portush until later in the week, such are the demands on his time he is due to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno show in America. When home he may bump into a few old college heads as the Palmer Cup takes place at Portrush this week where America’s finest take on their British and Irish counterparts – McDowell himself played twice in the team event.

McDowell may have become the first European winner of the coveted US Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 and only the second player from Northern Ireland to win a major after Fred Daly captured the British Open way back in 1947, but you get the feeling the local lad from Portrush will still keep his feet firmly on the ground.