Exclusive interview: The European vice-captain reflects on the tournament that provided his greatest memories in golf and a difficult 12 months that have forced him to question what’s next
For Graeme McDowell, nothing will ever compare to that delirious champagne-soaked Monday afternoon in 2010, shortly after his 15ft putt rolled across Celtic Manor’s 16th green in an arc that would shape golf’s history. That might seem overly romantic when considering his many achievements – none more obvious than his US Open triumph two months earlier that year – but over a decade on, a reluctant twilight has a way of illuminating what matters most, and even the grandeur of Pebble Beach pales against the emotion that gripped McDowell’s Ryder Cup-winning putt in Wales’s Usk Valley.
“It’s just completely different,” he says, a few weeks before leaving to join Team Europe at Whistling Straits. “When you’re trying to win a major, it’s all about you and the people closest to you. You win and lose for them. The Ryder Cup is about everyone: the European Tour, the countries, the caddies, the support network. It cranks up the intensity so much. I’ve never felt the same way on a golf course as I did walking onto the first tee at the Ryder Cup. Every shot feels so important. It’s like the back nine on Sunday times 10.”
McDowell made his debut in 2008 in the foursomes with Padraig Harrington and will be a key part of the leadership team in Wisconsin, continuing his “education” ahead of his own likely captaincy when the Ryder Cup returns to Ireland in 2027. It would be a fitting honour for a man who traces much of his career through the tournament. “If I’m standing on the 18th at Pebble and you press rewind, the 2008 Ryder Cup was a huge moment,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself that week: that I had the composure under duress, that my game was almost suited to the intensity. I remember playing with [Ian] Poulter on the Saturday afternoon, I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t understand why my arm hurt. Then I realised it’s because we’d been high-fiving so hard it was practically hanging off.”
McDowell laughs but there is a tinge of regret, too. In 2014, he embraced a veteran’s role in the dressing room, partnered a rookie in Victor Dubuisson and took all three possible points as Europe stormed to victory. He recognises that his role had changed “emotionally and spiritually in the team room”, but never imagined it would represent his final playing appearance. It has been a surprising, subtle but sometimes hollowing decline, a toll of bad results that accumulates and turns into scar tissue, leaving ridges of doubt in the subconscious. McDowell only recently turned 42, an age in golf that hardly impedes success – as can be realised in Europe’s current team – but admits the past 12 months have been the hardest of his career and have, if only briefly, left him to question his resolve.
“Before the pandemic, I felt like I was having a career resurgence,” he says. “I won in Saudi Arabia, finished in the top five in Hawaii, but then once we came back, I couldn’t make a cut. It’s almost like I see myself messing up before I actually do, the negativity creeps in and it’s hard to shake yourself out of that. When you play very badly on a Thursday, put up a 78 or something, it’s one part embarrassment. I was raised not to give up, it’s a special opportunity to be out there and I don’t make a habit of withdrawing, but there have been many evenings in the last few months when I think I can’t get the job done tomorrow, I’m wasting my time, and I’m looking at flights thinking I could just slip out of here and nobody would notice.
“Physically, I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in for seven years. I’m as motivated as I’ve been in a long time. I still love it, but the grind gets very hard, leaving your wife and children for 30 weeks. Life inevitably gets more serious the older you get, and you don’t bounce back as well as you did when you were 25. There was no collateral damage then. Now I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting my family down and that’s when the love can go away a little bit. It’s just those little crazy moments in life that you end up missing, those milestones watching them grow up.”
It is a startlingly honest admission, one that can seem a little at odds with the relaxed character that’s made McDowell so popular, but that introspection will be intimately familiar to every player. He derives motivation from the likes of Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Sergio Garcia, who have endured their own intermittent slumps, and his honesty should not be mistaken as a sign of weakness or faded determination. “It’s an old cliche but I want to leave this game on my own terms,” he says. “I want to get myself back in the top 50, compete in the majors a few more times, and maybe play one more Ryder Cup, then I’d be happy to walk away from it, but not now with things being so cold. It’s interesting to think what I’d do if it was gone tomorrow, but the bottom line is I still want to compete. Playing badly isn’t fun but the chances aren’t unlimited. I’ve got to take them and enjoy them.”
That is a focus that will move sharply to the forefront once a winner has been crowned on Sunday, but there is no danger of McDowell being distracted at the Ryder Cup. He repeatedly hails his four playing experiences as the best of his career, and there are still goosebumps at the memory of those heady celebrations at Le Golf National when he became one of those pouring the champagne as opposed to being doused in it himself. “I couldn’t not be there,” he says. “Obviously, I’d love to have been playing but I wanted to be part of it. I thought it would be frustrating and difficult at times being on the sidelines because I felt, like I still do today, that I have the ability to be one of the top 12 players in Europe, but I loved being part of that winning team.”
His greatest responsibilities this week will be to guide the younger members of the team, “to prepare them for what to expect”, and to help pass on Harrington’s meticulous strategy. “There’s so much information in his brain and, as vice-captains, we’re helping to massage that out of him,” McDowell says with a dry laugh. And what chance does he give the side, who are, at least on paper, such clear underdogs? “At one stage I thought we might get a spanking but six months later, we’ve got a great balance of experience and the No 1 player in the world in Jon Rahm. My opinion of how close it’s going to be has changed. I think we stand a great chance.”
There is, though, still one tee shot that compares to the Ryder Cup. When The Open returned to Portrush in 2019, tears formed in the corner of McDowell’s eyes as he stood on the first tee and the crowd ahead rocked in a cheer 10 rungs deep down the fairway. It was another poignant moment when it felt as though his career had come full circle. Since then, there have been flickers of doubt when it felt like it might be over all too soon. But rest assured, whether it’s by way of a renaissance in his playing career or the captaincy in 2025, the chapter is far from closed on one of Northern Ireland’s great sporting legacies. “That’s why I’m still here, just as fired up, 13 years later,” he says.