By Simon Evans
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland (Reuters) – For months, Graeme McDowell was facing the unthinkable — that this week’s British Open, being held in his home town, would take place without him.
Having slumped down the world rankings, falling outside the top 250 in the world this year, the 2010 U.S Open winner was facing a real battle to earn a spot.
The 39-year-old Northern Irishman had missed out on qualification for the last two British Opens and there were only limited ways for him to get a place.
The word among the golfing community of Portrush was that if McDowell didn’t make it, he would keep a commitment to a charity function and a couple of other events before leaving town before the action began.
In the end McDowell, gained his qualification spot with a top-10 finish at the Canadian Open last month but as he prepared for Thursday’s opening round, he admitted the pain of missing out would have been too much.
“I couldn’t stand to be here, it would be too bittersweet. It would be too tough to watch the guys go out there and compete on this place where I kind of learned the game,” he said.
But the process of making sure he was able to at least tee off on Thursday may have sparked something inside a player whose career seemed to be in freefall.
“It’s never easy to sit on the sidelines of the biggest events in the world; Ryder Cups, major championships, events that I became very used to playing in. When you’re sitting at home watching on TV, it’s frustrating. It makes you realise that if the game was gone tomorrow, you’d miss it really badly,” he said.
McDowell could sense that unless he took action, his memories of past glories might be all he had left.
“I think coming to that realisation helped me because it made me start to embrace the challenge a little bit more, enjoy the time I have left out here. I started to kind of get less frustrated and start to enjoy the act of trying to pull myself out of the hole I dug for myself.
“And it’s weird, the fog started to lift a little bit. I finished the year pretty strongly last year, and came out pretty strongly this year.”
McDowell has inevitably been given a warm homecoming welcome in Portrush and he is impressed by the way the Open set-up has taken shape in the town.
But, even as the rain and wind descended on the practice grounds on Wednesday, McDowell couldn’t help but day-dream a little about a major in the town where he cut his teeth at the adjacent Rathmore Club.
“It will be a special moment on the first tee tomorrow. Be very proud. It’s definitely, definitely a special, special week ahead,” he said.
“If I can somehow get out of the blocks tomorrow, get myself settled down, and get into the mix this weekend, it would be pretty cool to be coming back down on Sunday. That’s the vision. That’s the goal and I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like,” he said.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond)