It was a warm Sunday afternoon, the heatwave was showing no sign of relenting and the north of Ireland in all its splendour opened up as I slalomed through its winding roads en route to the beautiful Portrush.
Serene, soothing, smooth. How Sundays are meant to be.
A little over 60 miles west, the Scottish golfer Russell Knox was in the midst of an incredible last-gasp putting display to win the 2018 Dubai Duty-Free Irish Open at Ballyliffin.
Excitement, emotion, elation. How Sundays of golf tournaments are meant to be.
It’s difficult to put into words just how impactful my first impression of Royal Portrush Golf Club was. It hit me like a stray golf ball; no shout of ‘fore’, its image impressed on my forehead like the dimples of a Pro V1.
Its beauty lay in its danger; that coastal wind, the treacherous rough, the deep bunkers dotted around the course like massive footprints, as if the mythical giant Fionn mac Cumhaill himself snuck in a round of golf in between shaping the nearby Giant’s Causeway.
I now knew why the R&A were so excited to bring its flagship tournament, The Open, back to Portrush for the first time since 1951.
Ireland, and in particular the North of the country, had changed a lot in the sixty-seven years since Max Faulkner won his only major, and with it, the £300 prize money. One thing that remained constant, however, was Royal Portrush Golf Club’s seat at golf’s top table.
The famous 17-Mile Drive at Pebble Beach paled in comparison to the views offered by Portrush, and one man, in particular, could vouch to that, for the Californian course was the scene of his greatest individual triumph.
I walked down the clubhouse stairs, and there he was, staring into the trophy cabinet. Ten seconds must have passed; Graeme McDowell’s eyes remaining fixated on the Claret Jug that adorns the hallway of the Royal Portrush Golf Club clubhouse.
In twelve months time, G-Mac would have the chance to write his own piece of golf history, this time on his home turf.
“To play an Open Championship here in my hometown of Portrush in front of my own fans and family is certainly something I always dreamed about as a young boy.”
He has accomplished far more on the course than most golfers could dream of, but the 2010 US Open champion would undoubtedly swap it all for a chance to taste victory in front of his own people, on his own course.
“To win The Open Championship anywhere would be the icing on the cake for my career, (but) to win at Royal Portrush, it’s a wild dream.
“Just to imagine being able to come here and compete, and perhaps maybe fulfil the crazy dream of lifting the Claret Jug here on the 18th green at Royal Portrush.”
With the Claret Jug safely packed into the back of one, a convoy of four buggies set off for the iconic 5th, known as ‘White Rocks’.
On our way across the course, we stopped to let a group of golfers play through. One, dressed immaculately, stood over his ball and proceeded to duff his shot straight into a bunker, taking half the Portrush fairway with him.
Angry with himself, he turned around and told us to drive on through.
His face went as red as the iconic Hand of Ulster when he realised who was watching.
We put the pedal down and sped off, the golfer’s embarrassment shining as bright as the Claret Jug lying next to us.
The photographer was finally ready.
“Okay Graeme, here we go. Let us see that million dollar smile.”
“It’s worth about £20 these days,” retorted McDowell jokingly.
It had been a difficult couple of years for McDowell. From a peak of 4th in the Official World Golf Rankings, a steep drop had seen him bottom out at 239th this year. However, his game was improving and a number of promising finishes had seen him work his way back up golf’s ladder.
Now at 175th in the world, he appeared to have turned a corner.
We were back at the clubhouse, the cameras and lights were set up. It was interview time.
McDowell had already spent more time with us than he had committed to, and part of me wouldn’t have begrudged him making a beeline for his car. After all, he was flying out the next day to play in a qualifier for the upcoming Open Championship, one of his final chances to book a ticket to Carnoustie.
Ten minutes passed, McDowell was still outside the clubhouse. “What is delaying him?“, I thought to myself.
I decided to head back outside and soon had my answer; a crowd of McDowell’s young fans, all part of a local summer camp, had circled around their local hero.
A further ten minutes passed, McDowell posing for every photo, signing every glove, smiling throughout. The epitome of class.
The interview had begun.
“Every Major championship has its own unique identity. Augusta has the history, tradition, the green jacket. The US Open and the USPGA have their own individual thumbprints, but The Open Championship, it’s the noise, the aesthetics, it’s the way the golf course looks.
“I think every player that has had a chance to play all the Major championships, (they) just know the sounds, feels and smells of The Open Championship. It has that really special feel, the crowds are educated, they appreciate the game.
“For a British and Irish player, The Open Championship just has that special meaning.”
Earlier that day, McDowell told me that he had once shot a 60 on the Dunluce Links at Portrush. Although not unimaginable, the number was an interesting one. Back in 2005, a young Rory McIlroy had shot the official course record; a 61.
“I always remember where I was the first time I heard about Rory. He shot 61 here in the North of Ireland Championship. I had heard a few rumours around him, but when I heard about that score, I was like ‘this kid is obviously legit and he’s the real deal’.
“(Rory) has obviously gone on to do amazing things and I’m sure he’ll be coming to Portrush and (would) love to win it here as well.”
Despite Portrush not hosting a Major since 1951, it has had an influence on countless others. McDowell and McIlroy’s history here aside, it is also home to Darren Clarke, whose reserved parking spot needs no name. It is simply marked with the words ‘Reserved: 2011 Open Champion’.
Back-to-back US Open winner Brooks Koepka has also benefitted from the long-reaching golf swing of Portrush; his caddy Ricky Elliott grew up locally.
“Brooks Koepka, a good friend of mine, and his caddy, Ricky Elliott, one of my best friends, who grew up in the town of Portrush as well and knows this links like the back of his hand just like I do. I’m sure they’ll be coming over here with a definite opportunity to come win an Open Championship.”
Over the course of the interview, we discussed a number of topics, ranging from Tiger and Phil’s potential $10 million grudge match to Air France’s luggage handling efficiency, and the upcoming Ryder Cup vice-captaincy.
However, everything kept circling back to the other person in the room; the Claret Jug.
Glistening under the bright lights of our cameras, its presence felt like some sort of intangible pair of eyes burning a hole in McDowell’s back.
Yes, he had won a Major. Yes, he had won the Ryder Cup. But it was clear The Open remains the one elusive trophy McDowell would give everything for, and now he had the chance to do it in front of his own people.
Past Open Championships had left him with nothing but disappointment. Tied for 9th, tied for 5th, tied for 11th. Mere inches away from glory on the leaderboard, but a million miles from the Claret Jug in reality.
The literary colossus, Charles Dickens, once said there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk. Sitting face-to-face with McDowell, his portrait combined both. The seriousness signifying the mammoth task that lay before him, the smirk undoubtedly relishing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“If I had one more event left to win, (it would be) The Open Championship at Royal Portrush in 2019. I’d be happy just to hang the clubs up after that and say ‘I’m out’.”
Even Dickens himself could not script such a perfect tale.
The full video interview will be published to Pundit Arena on Monday, July 16th where McDowell discusses The Open at Royal Portrush, Ryder Cup captaincy, Rory McIlroy, the mental strength of Tiger Woods, Air France, and many more.