Graeme McDowell: The Open at Portrush is a dream - as long as I'm playing

Graeme McDowell wins the US Open in 2010
McDowell became Europe's first US Open champion for 40 years when he won his maiden major title in at Pebble Beach in 2010

The coincidence of the calendar could not be sweeter, but for Graeme McDowell it could turn unpalatably bitter.

This week the 39-year-old Northern Irishman, who was the UK's first winner of a men's major in the 21st century, has another chance to maximise a uniquely enticing summer which is highlighted by majors at Pebble Beach and Portrush.

Back in 2010 McDowell won his US Open at the place he calls "Pebble". Appropriately, it was that gutsiest of wins which reignited the movement to bring July's Open back to Northern Ireland.

Major triumphs for fellow Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke swiftly followed McDowell's breakthrough. Between them they made it an irresistible argument.

So next month the championship returns to the provinces for the first time in 68 years and will be played at Royal Portrush in McDowell's home town. It is as though the schedulers have tailored the 2019 calendar with one man in mind.

McDowell's 10-year US Open exemption has another 12 months to run, so he can look forward to returning to the scene of his greatest triumph on the Monterey Peninsula the week after next.

But playing the links that inspired his childhood love of the game is more problematic. Ranked 121 in the world, McDowell still has to earn a place in the Portrush field. The thought of missing out is unbearable.

"I'm going to do everything I can to make sure I'm there," McDowell told this week's edition of the BBC golf podcast, The Cut.

"I've already said there is no amount of alcohol that could keep me on the property of Portrush that week if I'm not competing. It would be very bittersweet, shall we say."

There are still 59 spots available for Portrush and on Thursday McDowell will tee off at the Canadian Open where three of those places are available.

"I'm just trying to let it take care of itself," McDowell added. "There are spots up for grabs at the Canadian Open, the US Open, Irish Open and Scottish Open.

"And I'm entered into final qualifying at St Annes Old Links on the Tuesday of the Irish Open as an absolute worse case scenario."

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I couldn't bear to be at The Open if I don't qualify - McDowell

Learning the game on the neighbouring Rathmore links, in an era blighted by Northern Ireland's troubles, McDowell said the notion that the area could once again stage The Open was nothing more than "one of those pipe dreams."

But he knows the role he has played in taking the Dunluce Links at Portrush, which last staged the championship in 1951, back to the centre of the golfing world.

"I played a small part in bringing it back I suppose, winning the US Open in 2010," McDowell said. "Then Rory's successes and then Darren winning at Royal St Georges, it's been a cool journey.

"To have it consecutive with Pebble in 2019, I certainly never dreamed of and so it's certainly shaping up for a very special summer."

But to feel its full magnitude, McDowell must sustain an encouraging return to form which brought him victory at the Corales Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic at the end of March.

The fact that he was even playing in that event shows how far he had fallen. It was "an opposite event", one of those staged for those PGA Tour players not good enough for the World Golf Championships tournament that was staged the same week.

"When you've tasted the top of the game to then be back playing opposite events and scrambling for FedEx Cup points, your card, your living and your future, really is quite sobering," McDowell admitted.

"Certainly over the last few years I've had moments when I've not been enjoying it. But I had to appreciate what I've got, because when it is gone I'm going to miss it terribly.

"The win in Dominican Republic was huge, it gives me a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and the opportunity to freewheel a little bit and just play the game to compete again."

Graeme McDowell plays Royal Portrush in 2012
McDowell plays a tee shot at the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush

Not that he can freewheel in the upcoming run of tournaments, starting this week at the Canadian Open in Ontario. Quite simply, McDowell has too much invested in his Portrush hinterland to miss out on the first Open to be staged there in his lifetime.

"From (aged) 11 onwards, summers were spent on the golf course - nine o'clock in the morning until nine at night," he recalled.

"I grew up on the Rathmore golf club, which is the artisans club," he explained. "It rents the land it sits on from Royal Portrush.

"The Dunluce links was only available if you were 15 years old or 15 handicap or better and it was like the promised land. I literally felt like I was at Augusta or St Andrews.

"It was a special place to grow up."

McDowell developed into a world class player. That Dominican victory in early spring was the 15th triumph of his professional career.

But he will always be remembered for his lone major triumph, a cardigan-clad US Open success at Pebble Beach, when he was last man standing on Father's Day in 2010.

"At the start of that week I'm not sure I truly felt deep down I was ready," McDowell told the podcast. "But all of a sudden you've got a two-shot lead going into the Saturday and whether you are ready or not, it is time."

He enjoys the challenges of golf on the west coast of the United States, the heavier winds evoke memories of the conditions back home. "It's something to do with the ocean breeze," he said.

"That Sunday afternoon I had my dad with me walking to the first tee. I said to him, 'sorry I didn't get the chance to get you anything for Father's Day buddy' and he said, 'go pick up that silver trophy today, that'll do'.

"You know, he's got tears in his eyes and I'm starting to well a little bit, it was an emotional moment."

But nothing compared with the scenes some four or so hours later as Kenny McDowell wrapped his arms around his son as he joined greats such as Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in becoming a US Open winner at Pebble Beach.

"To have him on the 18th green on the Sunday was one of those crazy memories and one of those moments I will always have with him.

"He introduced me to the game. I feel like he watches every shot today like he did when I was 15.

"His passion for every shot I've hit around the world has always been the same and so that's a memory I will always cherish."

And McDowell would like nothing more than to have his dad watching him compete on his home links next month. That is what makes the coming weeks so vital for this outstanding golfing ambassador.

"I've got a lot of confidence the way I'm playing and I've got to keep my head down and shove it to the back of my mind," he said.

There will be no shortage of supporters hoping he is able to succeed in a mission of such unique resonance.

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