Ten years ago, Graeme McDowell was at the top of his game. He had achieved Major glory winning the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, claimed three other worldwide victories , and finished the year as World Number Six.
After a number of seasons coveting a permanent spot inside the top 50, the Northern Irishman missed two Ryder Cups, and slipped to 259th in the Official World Golf Ranking last March.
Yet while he ended a four-year winless drought in the Dominican Republic just a few weeks later, it wasn’t until August last year – when he hired Kevin Kirk as his new coach – that McDowell felt his game really began to turn a corner.
A tied 15th finish at the Italian Open soon prompted a string of consistent results for the 40-year-old, and a return to the world’s top 50 soon became an attainable goal.
What McDowell hadn’t anticipated was that it would happen so fast at the Saudi International. He showed the kind of determination which helped him become a Major Champion as he battled to a final round 70 to win his first European Tour title in more than five and a half years. His two-stroke victory over Dustin Johnson – a wait of 2037 days – moved him from 104th to 47th in the Official World Golf Rankings, and McDowell plans to make the most of it. Here’s a closer look at his comeback over the past year…
First win in four years
After falling to his lowest World Ranking since 2004, McDowell turned something of a corner with his game when he claimed his first worldwide victory in over four years at Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship at the end of March last year.
It was a key moment for McDowell, who acknowledged it had been a ‘rough few years’, as it gave him both job security and a springboard to start focusing on how to improve his game.
“The win in the Dominican last year on the PGA Tour was huge, just to keep my job in the right place, you know, to give me a job to go to for the foreseeable future. Once I had that ticked off, it was a case of, ‘Right, how do I start getting better?”
Hiring a new coach
One of the biggest impacts on McDowell’s comeback was the decision to hire Houston based coach Kevin Kirk, who also works with Major Champions Patrick Reed and Lexi Thompson.
It was something he had been grappling with for more than two years, brought on by both limited time with his UK-based coach Pete Cowen, and a desire to get back to competing with the best in the game after his victory.
“I started working with Kevin Kirk back in August of last year and he’s injected a lot of focus and motivation into my practice and my way of thinking,” said McDowell. “He helped me get my ball flight back a little bit, and it’s amazing to be getting these leaps forward this soon. It’s nice to test yourself.
“At the end of 2017 I toyed with the idea of getting an American-based coach. It really boils down to the fact that Pete Cowen has been by my side for the last 14, 15 years and he still is part of the team, but since I fell outside of the top 50, I just really wasn’t getting a chance to see Pete enough.
“Pete’s still a huge part of what I’m doing, and Kevin’s actually worked under Pete quite a lot, studied under Pete so he speaks the same language. I really didn’t feel like it was a massive deviation from what I had been doing, which was important to me.
“Like I say, he’s brought a lot of simple stuff into my practice, just better practice, more organised practice and he’s just brought some really good stuff to the team, which has been massively important for me for the last five months.
“He’s told me: ‘There’s absolutely no reason why the best golf of your career can’t still be ahead of you.’ It’s little things like that that have resonated with me.
Victory in Saudi Arabia
A string of successful results occurred soon after, starting with a tied 15th at the Italian Open in Rome and culminating in his 11th European Tour victory at the Saudi International.
For McDowell, his two stroke win over defending champion Dustin Johnson felt like a significant steppingstone, rather than simply the full stop on a career comeback.
“I felt like it was part of my journey back, in that sense; this I’m playing well enough to win and if a win gets in the way, it’s great, it’s going to be a steppingstone.
“This is an important win. But it’s not like kind of end of a road or something. I feel like it’s just part of the journey a little bit, and I feel like I’m getting back to being good enough to compete on the big stage.”
Moving back inside the top 50
Victory at the Saudi International moved McDowell back inside the top 50 in the world, and although it was a goal of his, it happened a lot quicker than he had anticipated.
“To get back in the top 20, it felt a long way ahead of me,” said McDowell. “I think I’ve sort of broken that top 50 barrier probably three, four, six months faster than I thought I could.”
And now, he has no desire to squander the opportunity.
“Establishing myself back inside of that top 50, which is getting up into the top 30, top 20, that’s what I really want,” he said. “I think this will pretty much get me in Mexico, pretty much guaranteed World Match Play, which is really important to me, and I think Memphis as well.
“Just to be back in those, I think I’ll appreciate them a lot more this time around. I think all those years where you just, it’s expected, maybe you don’t appreciate what it is and what they are and how important they are at the time.
“I always felt like if I ever got the opportunity again I was really going to appreciate it and not, never take it for granted and prepare well and make sure I continue to work hard, because you just don’t know when this is going to go away.
“I think I tasted that little bit of mortality probably this time last year and I realised that I needed to, if I ever got the chance again, that I was going to work hard and do the best that I possibly could with that opportunity.”
What the rest of 2020 holds for McDowell
One of the key things Kirk told McDowell when they first started working together was that “there’s no reason why the best golf in your career can’t still be ahead of you.”
Viewing his victory in Saudi Arabia as a springboard, a return to the top 20 in the world and a spot in The 2020 Ryder Cup team at Whistling Straits has become McDowell’s next challenge.
“My goal is to get back in the top 20 in the world and to be competing. I want another chance at a Major Championship on the back nine on a Sunday. This is all the steps. It’s a lofty goal. There’s going to be a lot of steps between here and now, but this really gives me the kick-on that I need.
“I would love to be on the team, but there’s a lot of things that need to happen between now and then before I get myself on the team. I’m a little like Lee [Westwood]; I want to play my way on to the team and I don’t want to have to rely on that pick, but we’ll see.”
What’s certain is that it’s going to be a big year for McDowell, who was announced in December as the incoming host of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet for the next two years. His stint will begin at the iconic County Kilkenny venue, which hosts the island of Ireland’s national open for the first time in 25 years from May 28-31, 2020.
“It’s a huge privilege to have the opportunity to host the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in both 2020 and 2021,” said the Portrush native. “The event has gone from strength to strength over the last few years with the support of Dubai Duty Free and the efforts of Rory and Paul as hosts, alongside everybody at the European Tour.”
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