FEW of those competing at Gleneagles this week are more experienced than Graeme McDowell in the unique pressure-filled challenges presented by the Ryder Cup. Having hit the first shot, the last and quite a few knee-tremblers in between, the Northern Irishman knows what it takes to rise to the occasion.
At Medinah two years ago, he struck the opening blow, one of the most thankless, torturous tasks in sport. He also secured the winning point at Celtic Manor in 2010, a match he describes as the most nerve-racking experience of his life, more so even than heading into the delivery room for the birth of his first child four weeks ago.
He does not pretend it is easy. For those of us who can scarcely draw back the driver when a fellow member is gazing out of the clubhouse window, it was refreshing to hear him admit yesterday that there were times when he would rather be anywhere else in the world than over a golf ball with the weight of Europe on his shoulders.
But McDowell is made of stern stuff, a bit like his mother, Marian, who has battled multiple sclerosis for 12 years. He struggled to make this year’s team, but make it he did, prompting Paul McGinley to speak yesterday of the player’s “huge heart”. If the Europe captain needs anyone to handle the pressure points of an increasingly stressful competition, he need look no further than the 2010 US Open winner.
“I’ve been lucky enough to hit a few good shots under the gun in my career,” said McDowell. “I’m a guy that certainly embraces the high-pressure scenarios and tries to put them in perspective.
“Not that those types of scenarios are easy to enjoy. They are very painful and they’re very hard at the time. They’re very unusual scenarios because you crave them, but when you’re actually there, you sometimes wish you weren’t. All you can think about is not messing up. If you do succeed in that type of environment, they are very, very rewarding as well.
“I’ve been blessed, thankfully, with some level of fortitude. I got it from my mum. She’s a pretty tough cookie and an MS sufferer. The one thing that she did give me is perspective and some strength of mind. I would love to get a chance to test it out again this weekend.”
If, on Friday morning, he is the first of Europe’s players to walk through the tunnel that leads to the first tee and out into the amphitheatre of 2,000 seats, memories of Medinah will serve him well. He was calm and confident that Friday morning, but the wall of noise, followed by an eerie hush, spooked him.
“I remember getting announced on the first tee and putting the tee in the ground and the whole place going deathly silent. I remember standing over the tee shot, thinking, ‘This is just the most bizarre feeling I’ve ever had in my life’, and I didn’t put a very good swing on it. It was like my head was elsewhere, taking in how surreal the moment was.”
Looking back, he wonders if he should have kept the crowd going, as Bubba Watson did later in the day. McDowell was not at his best that week, but Europe won and he took away with him invaluable knowledge and experience for future reference.
At 35, with three Ryder Cups already under his belt, McDowell is in the veteran category now. He hopes to take on a leadership role at Gleneagles this week, which is why he expects to spend most of it partnering a rookie, such as Victor Dubuisson, rather than Rory McIlroy, his countryman.
He and McIlroy forged a strong partnership in each of the last two Ryder Cups, but now, with contrasting lengths off the tee, they are not such a clever fourball partnership.
McDowell said: “He’s standing there beating it 350 down the middle, and I put my tee in the ground, thinking, ‘There’s not really a lot of point in me hitting this’. I find myself throwing myself at it. It didn’t help my game much at Medinah.”
McDowell suggests that they could still play foursomes together, but there is no denying that the old chemistry has gone. McIlroy’s recent growth into one of the all-time greats means that, if they were to partner each other again, they would not connect in the way they used to.
“The older brother-younger brother leadership role that I had with him – that’s changed,” said McDowell. “He’s the world’s No 1 player. He’s a four-time major champion. The dynamic between him and me is changed forever. He would now be the leader of the two of us. Perhaps the dynamic doesn’t work as well as it did in the past. Perhaps I’m the kind of guy that needs that leadership role a little bit, who needs to feel like he is at least on a level with the guy he’s playing with.”
The conspiracy theory is that they are also separated by a legal battle, involving the management company Horizon, but McDowell is quick to deny it. “There’s no doubt our personal issues have been well documented in the last couple of years,” he said. “We’ve both come out of the other end of that probably better friends than we were going into it. So our personal issues are not a problem this weekend. That’s a fact.”
This, said McDowell, is neither the time nor the place for egos or grudges. All differences, all distractions, should be set aside in pursuit of a Ryder Cup victory, which he describes as “a very turbocharged, kind of electric moment in your life”.
In the days ahead, McDowell will miss his wife, who has stayed at home with their new-born daughter, but this is a time for sacrifice, a week in which team golf asks players to give up their modus operandi. As if to emphasise the point, McDowell said he would gladly accept another match in which he failed to produce his best if it meant that Europe retained the trophy.
“There’s nothing quite like the team atmosphere,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like playing for each other in a game which is innately individual.
“The game is selfish and we look out for ourselves, week-in, week-out. You live and die by your own achievement.
“We’re all very protective of our secrets and the things we try to do to become the best players we can.
“But this week, we are all very open books. We share and we’re really all united towards the one task. We’ll do anything for each other this week.”