Graeme McDowell can take a giant step towards becoming Ireland’s first world No 1 in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. And his former World Cup partner Paul McGinley is certain he won’t be scared of the opposition in his bid to get there.
The US Open champion, 31, has moved stealthily from 50th to fourth in the world over the past 12 months and he’s now a couple of tantalising wins away from becoming the world’s top player. In fact, with the top three of Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood all resting this week, McGinley expects McDowell to make a move quite soon.
Impressed by McDowell’s massive improvement in recent years, McGinley said: “Graeme has every chance of becoming world No 1 in the near future. He’s got Kaymer, Lee and Luke Donald ahead of him and they are three Europeans he would be very comfortable about overtaking.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him become world No 1, if he keeps going the way he is going. He has gone up two or three levels from where he was two or three years ago. It is incredible how quickly he has risen up and all credit to him.”
McGinley pushed hard to convince McDowell and his management company that it was important to take part in the 2009 Vivendi Trophy in Paris when bigger names such as Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Justin Rose turned down chances to play for the Great Britain and Ireland side.
McDowell turned out to be one of the stars of the show alongside Rory McIlroy, paving the way for a successful Ryder Cup partnership at Celtic Manor last October that would add to the McDowell legend that grew on a weekly basis last term.
“Everybody was concerend about that Vivendi Trophy team,” McGinley said. “We were losing four or five players - the Caseys and Roses and Poulters weren’t going to play. But the two guys I really wanted to play were Rory and Graeme and fortunately, and I can thank [his manager] Conor Ridge for that, he worked very hard on Graeme playing.
“Without Conor’s influence and without my badgering of him, I don’t think Graeme would have played that but in hindsight I think it was not alone great for me and the team winning that Graeme played but I think it was really good for his career too. It certainly helped him in the Ryder Cup context last year.”
A lot has changed in world golf since then. Tiger Woods crashed his car into a tree, awoke to a growing torrent of sleazy revelations about his private life and suffered a dramatic loss of form that changed golf’s big picture.
Enter McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge in December 2009 and the rest is history.
Following wins in the Celtic Manor Wales Open, the US Open, the Valderrama Masters and the Chevron World Challenge late last year, the world No 1 ranking has suddenly become an achievable goal for the stocky young man from the north coast.
“Two or three years ago the number one seemed untouchable [for me],” McDowell said at least year’s Dubai World Championship. “But I believe if I work hard in the next few years I could be the best player in the world. That’s become an achievable goal for me and something I am going to work hard toward.”
McDowell knows that the No 1 ranking is merely a reflection of excellence on the course and he’s not going to be fooled into taking his eye off the real goal, which is to win consistently.
His first challenge will be to finish ahead of Woods and Phil Mickelson, who are searching for some Master form at Bay Hill. This is the reality of McDowell’s world now and he admits that he is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he is now one of the game’s big five.
But with Woods and Mickelson in his rearview mirror, he also knows he can either go on and make history or get trampled in the stampede of talent chasing the No 1 spot and hope that he will come back with more self-belief somewhere down the line.
Daring to dream, McDowell said: “Of course I would love to become the best player in the world. To be the No 1 player in the world is pretty special. But fourth, fifth, 12th, 14th, we are all great players. I’m under no illusions that the 25th player in the world can beat me on any given day.
“It doesn’t give you any God-given right to shoot 65 every day because you’re the fourth-best player in the world, apparently. You’ve got to continue working hard. And of course I’m very proud to be the fourth best player in the world, it’s kind of fun. But I’ve got to keep going and I’ve got to keep playing because there’s a lot of quality players snapping at my heels.”
World No 5 Woods and No 6 Mickelson are the two biggest names chasing McDowell in the rankings. But the Irish star was the strong man of the three when they were drawn together for the first two rounds of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami two weeks ago.
And while he still has massive respect for a pair who are the bookies’ favourites for Masters glory, he believes he may now have the tools to challenge them at Augusta in two weeks’ time,
McDowell said: “I’d love to feel what that green jacket feels like on my back. I know to get round that golf course that I have got to learn a couple of different shots.”
McDowell missed the cut at Bay Hill last year when his short game let him down in the second round.
He played the last 11 holes in seven over par, running up a quadruple bogey eight at the 18th after fluffing a bunker shot and then sending his next attempt into a hazard.
On recent evidence, McDowell is now a demon bunker player. He’s worked hard on that aspect of his game and stands fifth in the PGA Tour sand saves statistics so far this season.
Feeling good about his game in his last start before the Masters, McDowell said: “The work I have done on my short game is obviously directed towards Augusta and I am starting to get some real confidence on the greens and there are just a couple of things I need to work on and I will be ready.”