ORLANDO, Fla. — Graeme McDowell has won more $16 million on the golf course, he has a U.S. Open victory to his credit and owns two restaurants. It’s been a life pretty well-lived. So, you could excuse McDowell if he was on career cruise control.
But he’s not.
McDowell, ranked 259th in the world, without a win in more than two years and generally in the wilderness with his game, is in the fight of his golfing life right now in pursuit of a place in the British Open field come July at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, where he happens to have grown up playing and is an honorary life member.
This is particularly relevant because McDowell’s 4-under 68 in Thursday’s opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill has him three shots behind leader Rafa Cabrera-Bello. And a win this week would secure McDowell a berth into the Open Championship field at Portrush because this tournament was recently added to an Open qualifying series, in which three players can qualify if they finish in the top 10.
“I only found that out on Tuesday, to be honest with you,’’ McDowell said Thursday. “But, listen, I’m focusing really on the big picture right now. I’m kind’ve the opinion that good golf will take care of the things that I want to take care of. Of course, the big goal this year is to be at Portrush and to play the Open Championship in my hometown six weeks after Pebble, the U.S. Open [where McDowell won in 2010]. The game’s there right now; I’ve just got to get out of my own way and have a little fun with it and not have things like that rattle around in my head too much.
“But,’’ McDowell added with a smile, “thanks for reminding me.’’
McDowell is determined not to let the prospect of playing Portrush consume him, because he believes it’ll derail him.
“If I let Portrush get into my mind the balance will become imbalance,’’ McDowell said. “I haven’t played very well historically with a gun to my head, if you like. I’m more of a guy who likes to try and look at the big picture and let things happen. I haven’t done a good job when I put pressure on myself. So I’m trying to do the opposite right now. I’m just trying to take a little pressure off myself and just realize that I love this game, I love being out there and I love doing what I do. My career so far has been pretty solid. If it ends now, so be it, but I’m going to enjoy what I have while I have it because if it was gone tomorrow, I would miss it.’’
McDowell then went on to say that deflecting the pressure is “hard to do because I want it really badly.’’
McDowell, who has three career PGA Tour wins, highlighted by the U.S. Open in 2010 at Pebble Beach, last won at the 2015 Mayakoba Classic, an opposite-field event. His game has fallen so far that he’s been relegated to playing some of the lower-level events, not ranked high enough to get into the World Golf Championships and majors.
Two weeks ago, McDowell bumped into fellow PGA Tour player Henrik Stenson at the airport in Orlando, where he’s lived since 2005. Stenson was about to board a flight to Mexico to play in the WGC-Mexico Championship and, across from that gate, McDowell was about to board a flight to Puerto Rico to play in a PGA Tour opposite-field event with the lower-ranked players.
McDowell had some fun on Twitter recounting the moment that morning: “Scenes at @MCOthis morning: @JetBlueto Mexico City and @WGCMexicoleaving from gate 3 and the flight to San Juan for @PuertoRicoOpenleaving from gate 6 opposite side of hall. Heroes take a left, zeroes take a right! @henrikstenson
At what point, McDowell surely wonders, did he slip from so-called “hero’’ to so-called “zero?’’
“Life just got in the way and it’s hard to get it back,’’ he said. “Mostly the family stuff. I don’t think I ever sat back and rested on my laurels. My practice changed, the time that I was giving to the game changed and I was less effective in what I was doing. It snuck up on me. But I’m trying and I’m very close.’’
Three more days await at Bay Hill before we know just how close McDowell is. If he’s as close as he hopes he is, by Sunday afternoon he’ll have accomplished a life-long-dream: A berth into the Open at his original home, Portrush.
“It’s going to be a special summer,’’ McDowell said, “if I can get myself there.’’
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