PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — As if being in the U.S. Open field this week at Pebble Beach, where he won the last U.S. Open played on the most famous links in America in 2010, Graeme McDowell is walking on air for a different reason.
His eighth-place finish in the RBC Canadian Open last week qualified him for the British Open next month at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, where McDowell grew up and learned the game that earns him a handsome living now.
McDowell’s quest to qualify for the British has become a story that has grown all season, with virtually everyone rooting for McDowell to play an Open on his home course.
“Qualifying for the Open Championship personally was such a big goal for me that it was a big relief,’’ McDowell said Tuesday. “I came into this year with very simple goals — trying to get my PGA Tour playing credentials locked up and get myself into Portrush. I achieved both of those.’’
McDowell — who drained a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole Sunday to save par and a spot in the Canadian Open top 10, which earned him the ticket to Portrush — will be paired with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open.
“I think four or five months ago, if you’d have told me you’re on the first tee with Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson this week at the U.S. Open, where my game was or where my confidence level was, I would have been very intimidated, no doubt about it,’’ McDowell said. “Confidence is one of these very fragile things. It certainly goes away a lot quicker than it comes back.’’
McDowell said he was planning to play in the 36-hole Open Championship qualifying tournament at St. Annes in England the Tuesday of the Irish Open as a last chance to get to Portrush.
“I was starting to make those plans a little bit, which was like, ‘Really, am I really doing this? OK. I guess we are,’ ’’ he said. “As these weeks started to crunch on and I hadn’t got the job done, the pressure was going to build. I certainly didn’t want to be in [the St. Annes] last chance saloon, going ‘This is it.’ But that was a real possibility.’’
McDowell had become a sympathetic figure of sorts as golf fans began to understand his desperate quest to get to Portrush.
“It was weird last week in Canada,’’ he said. “The last round, every hole I played, every tee box I walked on to, people were shouting at me: ‘Hope you make it to The Open. Hope you make it to Portrush.’ ’’
He made it. Now he’ll try to recreate the magic that brought him his only career major championship at the very place he won it.
“As I get older, it’s something I appreciate more and more and more,’’ McDowell said. “I’ve been working hard on my game the last couple of years, and one of my big goals is to get myself back there on the back nine on Sunday afternoon. I’d love another run at the top of the game, get myself back in the top 50 in the world and see if I can maybe get another big one before it’s all said and done.
“It’s certainly a great memory from the last time I was here. I got my dad here again with me this week. And a lot has changed in my life the last nine years. But certainly amazing memories coming back here, and looking forward to the week.’’