Padraig Harrington will spearhead Ireland’s bid for more major glory next month when he bids for a third Claret Jug.
That’s the view of Graeme McDowell, who was massively impressed by Harrington’s return to form in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush.
The event has a major feel with a 27,914 strong crowd making the hair stand up on the back of McDowell’s neck as he walked up the 18th alongside the triple major winning Dubliner.
As Harrington shot an effortless looking 67 for the second day running to sit just two shots off the lead, McDowell looked across to the senior man afterwards and said: “I don’t want to put any pressure on the fella in green there but I think he’s back to his best.”
With the roars of the crowd still ringing in his ears, McDowell found it hard not to think ahead to the Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes in just over two weeks’ time.
“Not taking anything away from the rest of the lads, I think myself Rory and Padraig have outstanding chances of winning the Open Championship this year,” he said.
“You can’t count out guys like Darren or Michael Hoey but Padraig especially looks like he’s back to his best. He’s impressed me the last couple of days.”
McDowell was both relieved and excited that he carded a four under 68 to make the cut with three shots to spare on five under par.
He was outside the projected cut mark on one-over with nine to play but turned the day around with a birdie at the 10th, picked up further shots at the 11th and 12th and then birdied the last from 18 feet to draw a roar that reminded him on the Open or the Ryder Cup at its best.
“There are plenty of people in this crowd, family and friends, who would have definitely given me a lot of abuse this evening if I had missed this cut,” McDowell said with a grin.
“I’m obviously delighted to be able to reward this great crowd with some great golf, and to be playing with Padraig Harrington whose game quietly impresses me at the minute. Myself and Paul McGinley, Darren and Rory will have to find something special this weekend.”
McDowell’s 2010 US Open win was one of the catalysts behind the move to bring the Irish Open back to Northern Ireland after a 59 year absence.
And he believes the move has proved to be a massive success with record crowds putting Portrush back on the map for a potential return to the Open Championship rota.
On the major like atmosphere as he walked up the 18th with Harrington and Simon Dyson, he said: “Yeah that was cool. The crowd were huge there, to be able to walk on to the green with a great champion like Padraig Harrington, with four majors between us, it was great.
“Kenny said to me over my putt, ‘this is a 40 minute putt’ – as in extra time in bed in the morning.
“I said, ‘this is a 20 decibel putt, if I could hole it would be a lot of fun’. It’s been great, some of the cheers have had the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
“They’re the kind of cheers that are saved for the Open Championship really, or the Ryder Cup. There’s nothing quite like this in a regular Tour event, though I hate saying that word regular, we play some fantastic tournaments around the world.
“But there’s something a little bit extra special about this crowd. It does have a Ryder Cup flavour to it because they genuinely are pulling for all the Irish boys, and it’s always a good feeling.”
McDowell has been under huge pressure to produce a performance in his home town and he admitted that it’s been tough to focus soley on competing.
“I’m trying too hard,” he said. ““I want it too bad for them, and for me as well, of course. It’s typical Irish Open pressure really and I always feel the same at the Irish Open, maybe I’m feeling a bit too much empathy with the crowd and just wanting me to play well too much for the crowd. I need to maybe shake that off and get over that a little bit.
“I’d love to win one of these Irish Opens and I need to be a little more comfortable. Comfortable is the wrong word, maybe more focused in this environment, playing for myself as opposed to for the crowd because I desperately want to do the right thing for these guys because they really have supported us so well.”