There is a bit of a gleam in Graeme McDowell’s eyes these days, a sense of rejuvenation and even redemption.
He has absolutely no chance of winning the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black this week, but the mere fact that he is playing in it brings satisfaction and relief and even joy. A 73 on Saturday puts him at 5 over par for three rounds and he’s just hoping for a good round Sunday and a better performance next week.
For the past two seasons, next week was never a given for McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion and once the No. 4-ranked player in the world. His game went south, and so did his standing on the PGA Tour. His ranking plunged to 257.
In late March at the Orlando airport, he ran into Henrik Stenson. McDowell was headed to the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. Stenson was headed to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, one of the bigger events on the PGA Tour where all the top players would be. The Puntacana tournament is known as an opposite field event, a much smaller purse, a much lesser field.
McDowell could not help but see the contrast. “Heroes go one way, zeroes go the other,” McDowell recalled thinking.
Then he won the Dominican event, and despite its lesser status, the victory came with an automatic two-plus years of exemption to play on the PGA Tour and a spot in the PGA Championship. “The gorilla was off my back,” he said.
Now he’s playing the way he wants to play. “I’m going out there to play golf for the sake of playing golf as opposed to counting world ranking points,” said McDowell, knowing now he’ll always have next week. “It speaks to the weight that was on my shoulders, I wasn’t sure when the next game of golf was coming. I’m in a great situation compared to where I was a few months ago.”
The 39-year-old says he let the gorilla climb on his back through a change in priorities, getting married, having children, dealing with everyday life while trying to play a selfish game — “Taking my eye off the game for a second and a hundred 25-year-old bombers just went running by me.”
There is one event he’s not guaranteed to get into at this point and that’s the British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. He grew up on the two courses there and would love to be playing in it. There are still several ways he could get into the tournament, but he tries not to think of them
“I’ve got to play one round at a time, very cliche, but if I start getting obsessed with Portrush, I’m going to be back to where I was a couple of months ago,” McDowell said. “I’m not very good with a gorilla on my back. I found out about myself the last couple of years. I’m a bit better when I’m freewheeling and playing for the love of the game, playing to be the best I can be instead of needing the FedEx Cup points, needing the dollars. It’s a hard way to play golf.”
It’s a lot easier as a winner, and having a strong Irish presence, the New York gallery doesn’t hurt.
“It’s great up here in the Northeast, plenty of Irish, probably more Irish than there are in Ireland,” McDowell said. “The crowds are fantastic, they say what they feel.”
And so does he.