With the pressure of securing a starting spot in his hometown Open Championship later this month now lifted, Graeme McDowell is relishing the opportunity to free his mind and concentrate on the task at hand: a good week in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
Had the Northern Irishman not sealed that prized exemption into the oldest major, making its first trip to Royal Portrush since 1951 in a fortnight, this week could have turned out very differently. McDowell might have faced the possibility of having to trek to Open qualifying in Lancashire on Tuesday before arriving in Lahinch yesterday for a single day’s preparation for the Irish Open and the pressure building all the time to achieve his season’s goal of playing a major on his native Antrim coast.
Mercifully, the 39-year old 2010 US Open champion got the job done last month with a top-eight finish at the Canadian Open good enough to nab one of three places available that week to earn a tee time at Portrush. Now, 26 days short of his 40th birthday, McDowell is already feeling the benefits of relieving what had been constant tension.
He won on the PGA Tour at the Corales Puntacana Championship, the same week in March that the WGC-Match Play was on, during that period of uncertainty surrounding his Portrush fate but a US Open tie for 16th on his return to Pebble Beach, scene of his greatest win, continued the upward curve from Canada and he has arrived in Lahinch delighted to have just a singular focus.
“I think it’s freed me up,” McDowell said of his Open qualification.
There’s enough of a storyline trying to compete every week without having the (Portrush) storyline all the time. Qualifying for The Open, I felt the story snowballing.
"I felt like every tournament that I went to, people were reminding me that I wasn’t in Portrush, ‘hope to see you at the Open at Portrush’, ‘hope you get in’. I’m like, ‘yeah, I know, I hope I do, too’.
“I think it was definitely freeing. I felt more relaxed over at Pebble and coming into these two weeks, if I had had to be at St Annes yesterday, that would have been tough prep for me coming into Lahinch, a golf course I don’t know very well, and it certainly doesn’t do much for your preparation.
“So it was great to be able to fly into Portrush on Sunday, spend a couple of days and come down here yesterday and get ready for this tournament and have The Open taken care of. It would have been incredibly bittersweet not to have been at the Open Championship, and I certainly didn’t want to come to the Irish and (next week’s) Scottish Opens with a gun to my head trying to get into The Open Championship, as well. It would have been a lot of pressure.”
McDowell has transformed his game this season after a couple of years of drifting, his world ranking soaring from a nadir of 259th at the start of March to his current standing of 91st. For a player that was sixth in the world in 2010, there is still some way to go for McDowell to feel he is back where he belongs in the game.
“Being top 50 by the end of the year is kind of a big goal for me, get myself in all the big events next year. Certainly top 50 felt very unachievable three, four months ago, and I feel like it’s very achievable between now and the end of the season.
“Really the focus goes back on the world ranking, the focus goes back on trying to be as ready to play every week as I can and try and compete every week.
“I figured out about myself that I’m at my best when I’m relaxed and focused on one thing, and just trying to be competitive, it’s very difficult to play when you’ve got kind of a bunch of things going on in your head about ifs and buts and maybes. Just nice to be looser and freer.
“It’s nice to have that singular focus back again where I can focus on being competitive every week, and that’s when I was at my most successful.”
McDowell was reminded that back in 2000, he had notable victories at both Lahinch, where he won the South of Ireland Championship and then Portrush, where he landed the Irish Close title. A repeat performance would, needless to say, go down very nicely.
“Wow, that would be pretty special. I like that. To win at Lahinch and Portrush again this summer, that would be special. That would be a pretty cool way to get myself back to where I want to be in this sport. I feel like I’m playing well enough to do it. I’m focused on the present here. I would love to try and compete and win this weekend.
"My record in the Irish Open wasn’t great in my younger days. Sometimes you show up at these events and you think just being there, that is the show, whereas focusing and competing, having a chance to win here would be very, very special.”