If it came down to it, the guy from Portrush was prepared to take his quest to what he called the last chance saloon.
Buried amid the list of hopefuls signed up for the British Open final qualifying — a 36-hole Tuesday at St. Annes Old Links in England — briefly appeared the name of Graeme McDowell.
“I was starting to make those plans a little bit — really, am I really doing this?” McDowell, the former United States Open winner, recalled last month. “O.K., I guess we are.”
Of all the years to lose an automatic slot in the British Open, the timing could not have been worse. With golf’s oldest major championship returning to McDowell’s Northern Ireland hometown for the first time in 68 years, he was clawing to get in.
Fortunately for McDowell, it never came down to his last chance, which would have been the Scottish Open if St. Annes had not worked out. He found an entry via Canada, grabbing one of three berths through the RBC Canadian Open by making a 30-foot par putt on the final hole in June.
“It would have been incredibly bittersweet not to have been at the Open Championship,” said McDowell, 39, who learned the game at Royal Portrush along with the neighboring Rathmore Golf Club. His closing 68 that day was good for a share of eighth.
Rory McIlroy, the Canadian Open champion after shooting a 61 on the final day, was happy for his countryman’s accomplishment.
“It would’ve been such a shame if the Open comes to Portrush and the hometown boy couldn’t play,” McIlroy said. “I know it’s something he’s wanted for a while. Obviously, it’ll be great to have him in the field at Portrush.”
[Read more on how the British Open finally returned to Royal Portrush after almost 70 years.]
For nearly a decade, McIlroy, McDowell and Darren Clarke had been pushing to bring the Open back to their homeland. Royal Portrush had been host for the 1951 edition, but the tournament had not returned.
Their efforts were rewarded four years ago when it was announced that the 2019 Open would be played at Royal Portrush. But as the date approached, McDowell still had not qualified.
Clarke and McIlroy have guaranteed berths until age 60 as past Open champions; Clarke won in 2011 and McIlroy in 2014. And for years, McDowell’s world ranking was good enough to earn an automatic place in the lineup.
McDowell reached as high as sixth at the end of 2010, when he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and had three other victories.
He won five more times through 2014, nearly adding a second U.S. Open crown in 2012 and tying for fifth at the British Open a month later. He stayed entrenched among the top 25 into 2015. Even then, he won the OHL Classic in Mexico late that year.
Changes off the course were beginning to have an impact. McDowell built a home in Florida and married Kristin Stape in 2013. Children followed, and he entered the restaurant business.
He fell out of the top 100 in 2017 and finished last year at 238.
“Golf is a fickle game,” McDowell said. “I took my eye off the ball — it felt like for a second — and a hundred 25-year-old kids came running by me.”
Starting this season, McDowell’s PGA Tour status was even in question. After finishing outside the top 150 in last year’s FedExCup standings, his entry status fell.
“I’ve had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple of years,” McDowell said. “Thankfully, I’ve come to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it. So you know what, let’s try to enjoy it while it’s here. It’s an opportunity.”
Opportunity came at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, a secondary event for those not eligible for a World Golf Championships stop the same week. Back-to-back 64s gave McDowell the lead heading to the final day, and he won by a shot.
The victory restored McDowell to a full PGA Tour card, and he could then focus on getting to Royal Portrush.
“I felt the story snowballing,” McDowell said. “I felt like every tournament that I went to, people were reminding me that I wasn’t in Portrush. ‘Hope to see you at Portrush,’ ‘Hope you get in.’ Yeah, I know. I hope I do, too.”
The Canadian Open is part of the Open Qualifying Series, tournaments in which British Open berths are made available to top finishers not already qualified. Failing that, McDowell was headed to the qualifier at St. Annes.
If that didn’t work, three more berths were dangling at the Scottish Open.
“I certainly didn’t want to be in Scotland, last chance saloon, going, ‘This is it,’” he said. “But that was a real possibility.”
Rounds of 65 and 67 put McDowell in contention in Canada, though a third-round 70 slowed his momentum. Beginning the final day, four golfers ahead of McDowell or tied with him were also competing for the three slots for Royal Portrush.
Things were still not settled as he headed to the final hole, where he drove in the left rough and had to lay up. His third shot stopped just short of the fringe.
“The putt was not makable, no,” McDowell recalled. “It had 12 feet of break in it. It was a ridiculously tough putt to make. I just fancied it — saw it, liked the way it looked.
“And when I saw it go in, it was a huge relief.”
McDowell tied for 16th at the U.S. Open and then headed for Royal Portrush. Though he faces a battle against such rivals as McIlroy and the world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, he feels the confidence returning.
“To have the Open ticket punched now,” he said, “gives me that little bit of breathing room to hopefully focus on my game and be competitive. I feel like I’m playing well.”
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