McDowell: 'I've led the open before. Maybe now I've learnt how to stay ahead'

Graeme McDowell tells James Corrigan why his US Open win will help him at St Andrews
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The Independent Online

The final confirmation will come just as the next major begins. When Ivor Robson, the Open Championship's official starter, announces next Thursday "On the tee, from Northern Ireland, US Open champion..." Graeme McDowell will know. There he will stand, the man he set out to be. And not the club-breaker he never wanted to be.

The recollections have been pouring back almost as quickly as the Guinness since McDowell stunned the sporting world on the Monterey Peninsula three Sundays ago. He has trouble remembering what came before Pebble Beach (and certainly what happened in the celebrations thereafter) but a few incidents do stand out as when he is asked to account for the making of the hero..

"2006 was a tough year for me," McDowell says. "I'd hurt myself in a car accident, was playing badly and was chasing my tail around the world. When Ken [Comboy] took my bag that year, I was in the middle of playing 19 events in 21 weeks. I was spinning. And I was starting to be a man on the golf course I didn't recognise. I remember breaking a club during a round at Crans-sur-Sierre. I had never broken a club in my life. I didn't know where I was, who I was. That's when the penny dropped and I thought: I need to do something."

What McDowell did was to rip it up. Everything. "My management team, my coach, my caddie, all kinds of stuff. The hugely important cogs in the whole mechanism," he said. "Would I be sitting here as the US Open champion without the changes I made? Probably not."

Then there was the little matter of changing himself. McDowell has read a few of the "life stories" penned about him in the wake of Pebble and believes them to have "a little bit harsh" when they hinted at the rich young professional enjoying the rich life in his Manchester bachelor pad. The word was the brilliant amateur – who in his time at the University of Alabama broke American collegiate records set by Tiger Woods – had won a few titles and was taking the celebrating a little too seriously. "I'm not sure about all that" says McDowell. "I just made some bad decisions. I went to the States, took up my Tour card there, tried to crack the big time before I was ready, and lost my confidence. At the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club I ended up commentating for TV and radio and thought to myself: 'Where did it all go wrong?"

He did not have to waste too much time reaching the conclusion; Comboy was to deliver the home truths. Once the caddie for Paul Casey and then for Thomas Bjorn, the Englishman knew what it took. "I was lucky he was available," says McDowell. "He beat me into shape, got me disciplined, got me thinking straight. Every golfer experiences ups and downs but I think I've had more than most in my eight-year career. I'm a fast learner and learnt a lot from my down time."

That much was evident by 2008. McDowell prevailed at the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond and a few months later could be seen with his weapon of choice at the Ryder Cup; it was definitely not a microphone. He cut an impressive figure that week in Kentucky, but as far as reaching the elite echelons went, there was plainly still something missing. McDowell was becoming known as one of those perennial first-round leaders, who would grab the major spotlight on the Thursday only to have disappeared by the Sunday.

"I think I've led the Open twice after the first day," he says. "And both times turned out pretty horrifically. I've had so many rough weekends in majors. At Hoylake in 2006, I was just a beaten man. In first place after round one, 50th after round four. And then the Saturday at Birkdale two years later was as bad as it got. I was in the third from last group and shot an 80. It's funny, I was talking to Kenny about it the other day, and he was telling me how he nearly punched me in that round. I got off to a bad start and then went after every pin. Mindless. A tough, tough day. But like I say, I learnt. Things like patience, conserving energy, having conservative targets and really accepting that par is a good score. Or even three-over."

That was what McDowell fired in the final round at the US Open, his 75 good enough to see off a garlanded pack of pursuers including Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. McDowell had realised it's all about finishing in guile, not style. "I found out what Tiger means when he says majors are the easiest tournaments to win," he says. "You actually don't have to do anything special because the courses are so difficult that you don't have to beat the man, just the course. I thought about guys like Y E Yang, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, guys who have won for the first time in the majors. 'It does happen,' I said to myself, 'this is possible, I can win today. Why not me?' You've got to dream big."

The last few weeks have brought an appearance on the Jay Leno talk show and a speaking role on Entourage, the HBO comedy-drama series. Messages have arrived from such diverse sources as David Cameron and Jimmy Nesbitt. Woods, himself, strode up to McDowell on the first tee at the J P McManus Pro-Am in Limerick on Tuesday and instead of addressing him by his usual greeting of "Hi, Graeme with an 'e'" said "Well done, champ". Life has changed immeasurably and irrevocably for McDowell. "Michael Campbell [the 2005 US Open champion] once said, 'They tell you how to get to the summit of Everest, but no one tells you how to get back down again', and I think that's a really good way of describing it'", says McDowell. "But I'm only 30 and feel I'm young enough to deal with it all and have a long career in front of me. I'm aware of the pitfalls. Yeah, I've enjoyed being the US Open champion and I've enjoyed everything that goes with it. But I know it doesn't give me any God-given right to shoot 65 every day.

"Next week will be difficult, for sure. I'm going to try to prioritise my time and get my work done as normal. But you can't ignore people's reactions. I am certainly going to enjoy the reaction of British and Irish fans at one of my favourite venues."

St Andrews holds optimistic memories for McDowell. There was the 62 he compiled in the 2004 Dunhill Links, there was the 11th place at the 2005 Open. Familiarity will indeed be key. As he attempts the implausible, if not quite the impossible, and tries to emulate Tiger's immortal Pebble-Old Course succession of 2000, McDowell will do so with "my ducks in the order they've always been".

"I'm not talking about following the exact same schedule that I did in the US Open, although I did have one beer a night and that seemed to work," he laughs. "But otherwise it will be same approach, same mindset, same voice inside in my head telling me to remain patient. If I do get into contention on Sunday afternoon I will take the confidence from Pebble. I now know that I have the ability and have what it takes to get the job done. That's the only thing that's changed, really." That and Ivor's description, of course.