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July 17, 2019
Portrush, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom
OLIVIA McMILLAN: It's my great pleasure to welcome Graeme McDowell to the interview room.
Graeme, obviously this is a very special week for you, in your hometown. Can you talk to us a little bit about the significance of the Open for you this year.
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, like you say, growing up here in the town of Portrush, must have walked past the photo of Fred Daly with the Claret Jug in his hand about 10,000 times. In my home club of Rathmore, just 500 yards down the road there, and growing up with the legend of '51 and kind of everything that happened at that Open, Max Faulkner.
To have kind of gone through the ranks and turned pro and started playing Open Championships myself. And to have played a small role, I guess, in kind of getting the gears in motion again to get The Open Championship back here, I mean, it's a proud moment to see it come together.
I think you get more of an idea for the size and the infrastructure that goes with this tournament. It's so enormous when you see it happening in your hometown and you see just how everyone benefits. How the whole country, how the whole island is benefiting. The infrastructure economically here in Portrush, I've never seen the town look so great. And just the buzz from the people this week, it's been amazing the last few days.
I expected a great welcome. I didn't really expect the buzz from the fans and just how genuinely happy and proud and excited they are to have this great golf tournament in this part of the world. I was on the first tee yesterday, felt like there was about 10,000 people on the first tee. Amazing atmosphere. A little nervous for a Tuesday, I couldn't believe it, really. And figured I'm going to feel a little fired up tomorrow morning on the first tee.
But it's been incredible. Like I say, I feel like people are just genuinely fired up and excited. It's such a big thing for this part of the world.
Q. When you were growing up and you said you were walking past pictures of the event from years gone by, did you ever wonder why it wasn't held here anymore? And did you kind of accept that it just would never come back to this part of the world?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, I mean, I suppose as a kid I never really thought about it. I never really thought about the reasons why. I mean, the obvious political struggles that we had in the '70s, '80s, '90s, I was too young to really grasp the magnitude and the reasons and be able to comprehend what the solutions were back in those days.
But when I eventually got out here on Tour and started spending time at Open Championship venues and got familiar enough with Peter Dawson to be able to kind of give him a little bit of a ribbing, it started off as a joke, Why can't we go back to Portrush? Myself and Darren and Rory, especially. And the reasons were: Infrastructure, and this and that and the other.
When the ball really started to get rolling was when Padraig won his three majors and then I won and Rory and Darren picked up a major each, as well. And the jokes turned kind of serious. It was the Irish Open in 2012 when we broke the European Tour attendance record. I think The R&A couldn't ignore the fact that this could be a commercial success. The jokes became very serious. It was like, We can do this, we can pull it off.
Like I say, it was amazing to play a small part in that role. It's so exciting to have it here and have it back. Like I say, it's been a great journey and I think we're going to have an extremely successful week. And fingers crossed, we'll be back pretty soon.
Q. You mentioned Rathmore, I wonder if you could discuss your roots there and what it means to be a Rathmore member.
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, so the Rathmore Club is behind the old 18th tee here on the Dunluce course. It sits on land owned by Royal Portrush; Royal Portrush owned everything here. Rathmore is a local members club. You have to live within the 30-mile limit signs of the town to be a member of Rathmore, the artisan's club, the working man's club. They have a few privileges, the privileges being they get to use the Valley Links quite often and they get to play the Dunluce Links from time to time.
My dad took the game up in his 30s. My dad had three jobs most of his life. And thankfully the game of golf was very affordable to him in his 30s. When he got the bug, he got it pretty hard. He brought his boys out on the golf course with him and they got the bug really quickly, as well. So we were lucky, like I say, it was cheap, affordable.
We had a great junior section, both the clubs, Rathmore and Royal Portrush, their junior section was a mixed junior section. We played lots of great tournaments during the summer. And like I say, it was a great place to play golf.
We had so many good kids here. We had some good players who I looked up to in my earlier teens. Ricky Elliott, who caddies for Brooks Koepka, was a guy I looked up to when I was about 12 or 13 because he was pretty much the best junior player here in Portrush. And I eventually followed him to college in America, and that was a big turning point in my life.
My dad was heavily involved in the junior program at Rathmore, and we had a great bunch of kids. That was really my upbringing in the sport. It was all I ever wanted to do was compete and be at the golf club and hang out. It certainly kept me out of trouble. Kept me from getting into any other stuff.
Yeah, very fortunate. Like I say, very fortunate the game of golf was so accessible in this part of the world.
Q. I think after lengthy discussions of the Open, the Portrush Sons of Ulster have announced they're going to have some marching bands in the center on Saturday night. I'm wondering as the man who knows the area most, how does that feel for you? Is it something that sits comfortably? Is it okay?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, I certainly don't really want to start getting into politics and religion and that kind of stuff. I'm not intelligent and educated enough in the real intricacies of why and how we still do this stuff.
People like to celebrate. As long as it's all respectfully done, we'll listen to people. It's a free country, right?
I don't really want to get into that stuff. It's a very difficult conversation, and Northern Ireland is a very unique place. So, listen, I hope everyone has fun and has a good time.
Q. There's not too many major winners I can think of got a chance to play in an Open Championship in their hometown. It's unique for you. You've had to deal with all that goes around it, including the media responsibilities. Can you be able to play the event this week and not let the occasion get to you? Can you blank it all off, and can you possibly be competitive this week? Fred Daly, yourself, if you're in the round here on Sunday, this place would ignite if you're in the mix come Sunday. Can you be there?
GRAEME McDOWELL: For sure. I hope so. I hope so. I certainly believe I can.
Pebble was a little bit of a dry run for me, four weeks ago, five weeks ago, going in there as defending Pebble U.S. Open champion, if you like. It was nothing of the magnitude of this, though. There was a lot of distractions off the course the week of Pebble.
But like I said at the start, the welcome I've received from the people this week has been epic. It's been amazing. Just the pride level and the way people have responded and well-wishers and the support that I'm going to have.
So I'm really -- I think the visual I have as a Ryder Cup, I'm trying to picture the crowd as a Ryder Cup crowd, that they're all there to support me in a positive way. I need to use them positively and not see it as a negative thing; see it as a positive thing.
Like I say, when I walked down to that tee yesterday in a practice round, the noise was incredible for a Tuesday. Like I say, I could feel the juices flowing already.
There's no doubt getting out there tomorrow morning, getting away and getting the competitive kind of head-on, I've really tried the last three or four days to double my normal patience level at a golf tournament and just embrace the fact that people want pictures and they want autographs and they want to say, Hey. And I've decided that I was just going to go with whatever people wanted the last few days.
In a funny way missing the cut in Scotland last week gave me some extra time to come in here and prepare. I've really enjoyed the last few days.
Very much looking forward to the gun going off tomorrow, getting the head down. I've got a great draw. I'm very happy with the draw I've got. And I think it will just be about kind of the first nine holes tomorrow trying just to settle down, get patient, and try to make a few birdies and get off to a nice start. That will be very important for me tomorrow.
Q. Obviously there's been a lot going on in your life in recent years, kids, business interests. But at what stage did you say, I've got to be in Portrush 2019 and what steps did you take to make sure that you got here?
GRAEME McDOWELL: I mean, obviously as soon as the tournament was announced I wanted to be here, of course. I've missed the last couple of Opens. 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.
I think middle of last year, middle of last season, I had that conversation with myself, I said, Hey, if you continue to play the way you're playing, this game is going to be gone a hell of a lot quicker than you thought it was going to be gone. What's that going to feel like? I'm going to miss it really badly.
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, like I say, 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.
Getting into this tournament was never a given at 250 in the world, or wherever I started this year, I could have very easily missed it. It would have been certainly very disappointing. But it's great the way things have come together this year. Big goals that I set myself, well, they were pretty simple goals, if you had said those goals to me eight years ago I'd have laughed. But it's all relative what you're trying to achieve in this sport.
Trying to get my playing credentials back in the States, trying to get back into the top 100 in the world, and try to qualify for The Open Championship. Those are the things I was trying to do this year.
It was amazing getting that job done in Canada. I certainly didn't want to come home to the Irish and Scottish Open with that weight on my shoulders, trying to get into this tournament. It would have been tough enough to concentrate, although I don't think I could have played any worse. So the last two weeks didn't really go the way I wanted to.
It's been good. Obviously excited to be here. It definitely would be a dream to be competitive this weekend.
Q. I wonder how often have you played the course in recent years and how much has it changed from the course that you once knew?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Very little, to be honest with you. 2012 obviously the Irish, there were four rainy days. Aside from that, you know, very little, to be honest. There's some tee shots out there that are a lot shorter than I remember them growing up as the technology and the ball flies a lot further nowadays. There are a few tee shots a lot longer than I remember them with the new tee boxes, some of the new bunkering. In reality, there's four new green complexes, probably a couple dozen new bunkers, and maybe six or seven new tee boxes.
But 90 percent of it, 85 percent of the golf course remains exactly how I remember it. I played a lot of golf here in the '90s, early 2000s, and I don't think you ever really lose the memory of the nuances and the bounces and the way the ground reacts around here.
I feel like when I get going tomorrow, a lot of the competitive edge will come flooding back with regards how the ball really does feed and react around this golf course.
I feel like the guys have perhaps not had the best few days of preparation, with how calm it played Sunday, Monday, Tuesday here. Today is really their first look at it in a proper Portrush day, if you like. It's a slightly unusual wind direction even today.
I was here a couple of weeks ago and I felt like I played it in the proper summertime wind and had a couple of good days here in the strong wind. Obviously we know in links golf it's a lot to do with the wind direction and strength. And a golf course can turn upside down. Holes that played unbelievably short, all of a sudden play unbelievably long, strategy changes. And you've got to be ready for that.
So I feel like my experiences here should help as this golf course begins to change the next few days. I think we're going to see a stronger wind, a little bit more out of the west tomorrow. And it will test the guys. Like I say, they haven't really had a chance to see this place with its teeth sharp. Today is the first day.
Q. I'm sure you've been playing a brilliant ambassadorial role this week for the area. I'm just curious whether you can explain a bit about Northern Ireland sporting folklore. Any of your American pals, you have to explain who George Best is to the American golfers. Maybe some flew into the airport that's got his name.
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, I mean, no George Best conversations so far. But certainly lots of interest in the history of Ireland. Lots of the boys hitting the Giant's Causeway and the rope bridge. I'm really happy a lot of the guys have taken the time to immerse themselves a little bit into the culture. A lot of guys flew into Dublin and spent a few days there, and sampled some of the delights of that part of the world. Like I say, are really enjoying coming to a completely new venue.
But I've had lots of request for practice rounds. I managed to spend some time with Jon Rahm, Andrew Putnam, Dustin Johnson on Saturday. Lots of guys asked for practice rounds, and I try my best. Like I just said, I haven't played a lot of golf here in 20 years, and the golf course has changed a lot. But certainly try my best to give guys the directions around the golf course. But probably more so the directions around here where to go, where to eat, where to hang out, enjoying some of Portrush's hospitality.
But like I say, it's great to see the guys coming up here and being so blown away by the golf course and bathed in sunshine the last few days, it's looked amazing.
Q. Would you be surprised if somebody has not heard of George Best?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Knowing how little they watch football in the States, not really. I wouldn't be surprised. But my older brother is called George, so there was no way I was not going to know who George Best was when I was growing up, that's for sure.
Q. Rory spoke earlier about his course record, 61 around the Dunluce before it was changed, obviously. I wonder what was your best score around Dunluce even in casual play? Was there any side bets between the Irish players how they were going to score?
GRAEME McDOWELL: I remember 63 in a casual round. I remember when Rory shot that 61. We heard the rumors of this young kid. There's always a young kid. But I remember when he shot the 61, I was like, Hold on a minute, that's a serious score. So maybe this young kid is for real, for real. And obviously he is for real. So we were right.
But, yeah, side bets, not much this week. We've been on different schedules. Great to see Darren hitting the first shot tomorrow morning. I think that's fantastic. Myself, Shane, Rory, and Darren are all off within a couple of hours of each other tomorrow, so it should be a great buzz out there.
Rory obviously knows this place pretty well. I'm sure he fancies his chances pretty well. 61 was a serious score, even on the old layout.
Q. How many times did you shoot 63?
GRAEME McDOWELL: A couple of times. A couple of times. Never in the north of Ireland qualifier, which is when Rory did his. When you've got a card in your pocket and you're playing the competition pins, a score like that is a real score. Not when you're out maybe having a Magners on the 10th tee with the lads, that's not a real 63. Maybe it's a better one, who knows (laughter).
Q. As Rory raised his profile and started winning and became a bit of a star he's been pulled in some different directions in terms of his Olympic allegiance, I wonder what your impression is about how he's handled that and what kind of ambassador he's become in your eyes?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, for sure, in the whole Olympic question, Northern Ireland sits in such a unique, precarious, kind of situation. There's no right or wrong answer nearly, which is difficult for an athlete, especially one who has such a high profile like Rory.
As far as the kind of ambassador he is, he's fantastic. He's Ireland's greatest ever player. And he's a great role model for kids. And to me as he continues to mature I feel like this year, especially, I've never seen him in such a good place mentally. I feel like he's grown up a huge amount and certainly he's embracing the challenges ahead of him as he becomes older. And he's certainly a lot more philosophical these days, I feel like. I feel like he's done a lot of work on his game, on the mental side of his game. And like I say I've never seen him so calculated and in such a good place mentally. Physically we've never doubted him in any way, shape or form. I feel like he's completing the package as we speak. It wouldn't surprise me to see him go real close this week, if not win.
Q. You told us the story about your childhood, junior years here in Portrush. But as the plan A was to play pro golf. But what was going through your mind as a plan B when you were young?
GRAEME McDOWELL: I didn't really have a plan B. Pro golf wasn't really even plan A when I was a kid. I just wanted to be a good golfer. We grew up here, we didn't have a lot of exposure to pro golf in this part of the world. We had a lot of exposure to amateur golf. We had a great tournament here every summer the North of Ireland Amateur. We had the British Amateur come here in '93, which I sign boyed for most of the weekend, and I think I sign boyed in the final. And I looked at those guys and realized that I wanted to be a great amateur player.
And then when you become a great amateur player and you make a Walker Cup team, well the next level is pro golf. It probably wasn't until I went to college in the States and started to become a little bit better that pro golf just became the next automatic step.
Like I say, I didn't grow up in my teens dreaming of sitting up here in front of you guys at The Open Championship one year. I didn't really have a concept for that. I just knew that I loved competing, I loved the game of golf and I wanted to get to the next level. And then all of a sudden the next level was the paid ranks and here we are.
So like I say, I didn't really have a plan A or a plan B. I was reasonably academic in school, math and physics, I was going into engineering of some description. No idea what you want to do when you're 17, 18 years old it's difficult to know where life is going to take you. I got very fortunate. The game of golf has taken my some great places.
Q. Rory was in here earlier talking about the legacy of this tournament, hosting this tournament. How much do you hope this tournament may be the catalyst for getting more young people involved in the sport. When you were young and getting inspired to get into the game was it a particular player that you watched or a tournament that you went to? What inspired you?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Yeah, I mean, I'll answer your second part first. The North of Ireland Championship really inspired me in the sport, guys like Darren and Padraig and Paul McGinley would come here. Garth McGimpsey was a Northern Ireland amateur legend. Those were the guys that inspired me. Like I say, '93 British Amateur was really a big competitive turning point in my mind, looking at those guys thinking I wanted to be out there doing that stuff.
In regards to legacy and what this event can do for golf in Ireland, it's amazing, I said it earlier, the kind of spinoffs and just looking at Portrush and then just kind of letting everything kind of filter out from here, I feel like the town can go from strength to strength economically. And I think the knock on effect on the whole of Ireland is huge. If we can have a great week this week, have a successful tournament, which seems inevitable at this point, I think get The Open Championship back here in the near future, I think the spinoffs for golf in Ireland in general I think is huge.
As a tourist destination, as a nation which continues to be synonymous with the game of golf, bringing young kids to the game. I'm not really sure what participation numbers look like in Ireland these days, feels like still reasonably strong. Rory, I'm sure young kids in this country look up to him. And like I said earlier the game of golf is extremely accessible in this country. I think everything can only be a massive positive.
And like I say, being from this part of the world obviously I'm biased and I'm very proud for what it's going to do for this town and this surrounding area. And the fact that when I meet American tourists that come to Ireland and they go to the southwest and they go to Dublin, and they never quite make it to the north coast, I'm always a little biased and I tell them they're missing is out. But this should really sort of put Portrush on the global stage, on the map. And it should hopefully look amazing on TV this weekend.
Q. You mentioned that you had to have a good talk to yourself about a year ago, just in preparation for The Open. How did that actually manifest itself in terms of your game? Rory mentioned earlier he took up meditation, anything like that, or any parts of your game you worked on?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Should probably have a chat with Rory about that, to be honest. I'm always having a decent chat with myself, that's life.
But like I said, for me, my journey has been really about kind of facing the demons of mortality, you know. It's kind of like, hey, this is not going to be around forever, this game. When you're top-20 in the world for years and years and years the game felt easy. You turned up at WGCs and majors ready to compete most weeks. Then all of a sudden you're battling to get back into the big events and you're missing cuts and you're finishing 133rd in the FedEx and you're thinking, well, what happened? And realizing that if you continue down that road that the game of golf is going to disappear quickly.
I was lucky that coming into this season that I had a little bit of credibility up regards my relationships with tournaments, and as U.S. Open champion, I had a little bit of some invitations and some favours to call in. But I realized that they wouldn't be around forever, either. You get one stab at that, maybe two, and if you don't produce the goods you're out the door, you know. So it was really just that staring mortality in the face and saying, hey, I don't really want that so I need to refocus and motivate. And you ask yourself the questions, how do I get back to where I want to be? I have to work hard and you have to work on the right things and you're going to be patient and it has to hurt a few times. If you stay patient enough good stuff will happen again. And thankfully it did.
Going down to an event like the Dominican Republic this year, which was an opposite event, opposite the World Match Play. There's a big part of me that might have said, I should be at the World Match Play, what am I doing down here? Instead a little bit of experience the last few years is, hey, this is an opportunity this week. And if you were to win down here this week it's going to open the doors that you want to open again. Focus, concentrate and see what you can do. End up winning that tournament and get myself close to back to where I want to be again.
It's the attitude, every player has these conversations with himself. Guys do it differently from others. And I've always been kind of real and honest. I always like coaches and caddies and people around me who are honest with me and just say, hey, listen, you're not working hard enough. You need to start refocusing. Just people are honest with me. That's been the flavor of my team throughout my career. And I think the last few years are when I've needed those people myself.
Q. I know you were always committed to the charity event Monday morning. You were going to come do that. I hear it was a great success. But the chat was if you didn't qualify you would do that and probably go and not stay. How difficult was it to come to that conclusion? And do you think now being here, seeing the whole event, if you had been there in those circumstances would you have relented, would you have stayed?
GRAEME McDOWELL: Good question, and thankfully we'll never know the answer.
But, yeah, we had the RNLI charity fundraiser Monday morning, which was fantastic, I had committed to that. My mom had arranged that one, that's one of those you can't say no to. Yes, boss, I'll be there.
And then I had a couple other small commitments early in the week. And I'd say obviously my plan was to do those and get out of here, because 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.
Who knows? Like I say, thankfully we didn't have to answer that question. The infrastructure, the way the golf course looks this week, especially the last few days in the sunshine, it's just been amazing. Amazingly proud.
It will be a special moment on the first tee tomorrow. Be very proud. It's definitely, definitely a special, special week ahead.
Like I say, 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.
OLIVIA McMILLAN: Thanks for your time today and best of luck this week.
GRAEME McDOWELL: Thank you. Thanks so much, guys.
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