My Sportsman: Graeme McDowell
What do we look for in a Sportsman of the Year? He must win; win with class; achieve something transcendent; and somehow give this achievement -- and himself -- a meaning that is larger than sports. This was Graeme McDowell in 2010.
A chatty, 31-year old bachelor from Northern Ireland, McDowell has long been a pro's pro, revered in golf circles for his shotmaking skills and flinty competitiveness but largely unknown to the casual sports fan, despite victories in five countries. McDowell enjoyed a major career upgrade in June with his victory at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. A national championship at Pebble is fluke-proof; the four previous winners were Hall of Famers Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, and Tiger Woods. In becoming the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open McDowell displayed an admirable humility, genuflecting on the magnitude of the achievement and not his own personal glory. "I think I've died and gone to heaven for sure," he said during the trophy presentation. "This can't be real. I don't think this will ever sink in."
Equally charming was his father, Kenny, who stood near the 18th green shedding tears and predicting that the whole of Ireland would run dry of Guinness.
The momentous Open victory was just a prelude to McDowell's heroics at the Ryder Cup. During team play McDowell shepherded his young, brash countryman Rory McIlroy through a series of taut matches. For singles, G-Mac was sent out in the last match, a spot often reserved for a team's fiercest competitor. As the U.S. squad mounted a furious rally it became increasingly clear that McDowell's tilt versus Hunter Mahan was going to be decisive. As they played on all of Wales seemed to tip in their direction. McDowell's game has been sharpened by the gales blowing through Royal Portrush, the famed links course he calls home. Speaking of the pressure of deciding the Ryder Cup, McDowell said,"The U.S. Open felt like a back nine with my dad at Portrush compared to that."
Yet he was relentless in building a two-up lead on Mahan. But when the laconic Texan birdied the 15th hole McDowell's advantage was halved.
The true measure of a sportsman is how he responds in the most trying circumstances. With the weight of a continent on his shoulders McDowell was now facing the prospect of choking away the most important trophy in golf. On the 16th hole he responded with a perfect drive, a gorgeous approach shot to 15 feet and then what he called "the most important putt of my life." The birdie was monumental, and McDowell won the match -- and the Ryder Cup -- on the next hole.
Afterward he eloquently spoke of how golf is usually such an inherently selfish game but that the strain of the Ryder Cup comes from caring a little too much about others. "This was crazy," McDowell said. "I've never felt as nervous on a golf course in my life as I did out there. I mean, trying to do it for my 11 teammates, trying to do it for all these fans, trying to do it for my captain, trying to do it for Europe, it's a lot of pressure!"
McDowell proved stout enough to handle all of it. With his courageous play and generosity of spirit he elevated himself and his sport.