Graeme McDowell had the golf world celebrating in unison when he qualified for the Open in his hometown of Portrush. But can he win it?
It is not every day that I cheer out loud while watching TV but that is exactly what I did when Graeme McDowell holed the 30-foot putt at the Canadian Open which earned him a place in his hometown Open at Royal Portrush.
It was a magical moment and all the more special because I had been harbouring doubts that the popular 2010 US Open champion would qualify to compete on the course where he played as a youngster and adores more than any other.
Fairy tales do sometimes come true.
McDowell was clearly emotional in the aftermath of confirming his place in the Open, which was no surprise given his lifelong attachment to the host club.
“I feel hugely relieved,” admitted the 39-year-old Ulsterman, who was made an honorary member of Portrush back in 2002 in the aftermath of collecting his first European Tour title at the Volvo Scandinavian Masters.
“Just to play a small part in getting the Open back to Portrush was one of the prouder moments of my career so it would have been extremely bittersweet for me not to be playing in the field.
“No amount of alcohol could have kept me at Portrush that week if I hadn’t been competing. It would have been too painful.
“It’s going to feel epic on that first tee,” he added. “The fans are going to offer huge support and they are excited to have the best players in the world come to Portrush. It’s going to be a very special occasion.”
Prior to earning his place by finishing in a share of 8th place in Canada, McDowell had asked the R&A whether he might receive some sort of special exemption only to be told he would not.
That might seem a trifle harsh given that the other three majors all offer special exemptions to high profile players who do not meet their own qualification criteria but the R&A clearly believes that is inappropriate for a championship of the standing of the Open and I tend to agree.
I think all players should have to earn the right to play in what is the world’s premiere championship and not just be handed a place as a result of past accomplishments. I’m not altogether sure that the current qualification system is perfect but that is a different argument altogether and is not relevant to whether or not McDowell and others like him should receive preferential treatment.
That said, there is no doubt that McDowell’s presence will enhance the atmosphere at Northern Ireland’s first Open for 60 years and I can confirm that it was already bubbling up nicely when I visited both Portrush and nearby Portstewart in the last few weeks.
The sense of anticipation was already palpable during my visit and that will only have increased now that McDowell has joined fellow Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke in the field.
The Irish have a deserved reputation for loving their sport and supporting their own so, with more than 43,000 spectators watching on, imagine the scenes if one of the Irish players happens to be in contention coming down the closing stretch.
The obvious candidate to be in that position come the evening of Sunday July 21 is 2014 champion McIlroy but it might not be too far-fetched to imagine McDowell playing a similarly prominent role given that he has already won on this year’s PGA Tour at an event in the Dominican Republic and followed his top-10 finish at the Canadian Open with another good showing at the US Open, where he shared 16th place, a shot ahead of a certain Tiger Woods. He certainly will not be a 100-1 outsider like he was at Pebble Beach.
McDowell himself certainly has not discounted his chances of mounting a challenge and nor should he on a course where experience and guile will be just as important as brute strength.
“It’s my dream to be there on the back nine on Sunday and be in touching distance,” he said recently.
What a story that would be.