Graeme McDowell held back tears and expressed his “massive relief” after a a clutch 71st hole birdie set up his first win for more than three years in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
Without a victory since he almost holed a four-iron to claim the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in a playoff in 2015, the Portrush star (39) produced a similar piece of magic, rifling a 175-yard six-iron to just over three feet at the 17th in the Dominican Republic to set up a deuce that could prove to be his ace in the hole this season
One clear overnight after following a 73 with back-to-back 64's at Corales Golf Club, he raced three shots clear early in the round but was trailing playing partner Chris Stroud by one stroke with two holes to go.
Knowing he needed something special to have a chance, he proved that old adage about form being fleeting and class permanent with an iron shot that was worth more than the $540,000 first prize or a move from 257th to around 133rd in the world today.
"I was standing on the 16th green and said to myself, you've got to do something that's tournament winning," he said of a birdie at the 17th that gave him a one-stroke the lead as Stroud missed the green and bogeyed.
"The shot to 17 was tournament winning level."
He added: “This one is a pretty sweet victory. It feels a bit like the victory at Mayakoba in '15. It comes at the end of a long grind. This one's been coming. I feel like I have been playing well for the last 12 months and haven't been turning my good weeks into big weeks and that's been the big key. That's what you have to do on the PGA Tour and what you have to do in the FedEx Cup points race.
“You have to make your big weeks into big weeks and that's the key. That's what you have to do on the PGA Tour. That's what you have to do to get your self up the FedEx points list, you have to make your big weeks into big ones. This win is going to go a long way towards getting me back to where I want to be in the game. That's the mission at the minute. Get myself back in the top 50, top 100 in the world, competing on a week to week basis against the best players in the world.”
Both men would bogey the 501 yard, par-four 18th —McDowell playing safe with his pitch after Stroud gunned his long range birdie putt from the front edge 20 feet past. But he wasn’t worried about that at the finish and can now map out a schedule that will give him chance to qualify for The Open in his home town.
Asked greenside what the victory ranked for him given that he is now fully exempt again after being forced to ask for invitations after losing his card last year, McDowell said: "Don't make me cry. This is big.
"This is big for the people who stood by me — my sponsors, Srixon, RBC, Mastercard, Wheels Up — the guys who stood by me because it's been a rough few years.
"[My caddie] Kenny, who has been at my side for the last 13 years, it's been a grind for my whole family. my wife, my kids and everyone at home. It’s been a rough few years."
On the key birdie he made at the 17th, he said: "I've been struggling with my medium and long iron play all week and it's a shot I have been working on the last few days.
"It was a perfect six iron, a perfect number for me. When it came off the bat I knew it was pretty good.
"Chris Stroud played so well today. He hung in there and putted like I did yesterday. He was a tough guy to shake off.
"It was a pity it had to come down to this tricky 18th hole where we had to hit our tee shots away from the green but I am really happy I got this done.”
Paul Dunne tied for 12th on 12-under after a 71 with Seamus Power tied for 44th after a 70.
Dunne needed a top 10 to going McDowell, Power and Padraig Harrington in this week’s Valero Texas Open where the winner, if not already exempt, will be heading to Augusta National.
McDowell is thinking about his schedule now and with a two-year exemption, he can forget about asking for invitations and play with the freedom he’s been lacking due to his recent struggles.
The Open at Royal Portrush is a clear goal though he is simply hoping to continue racking up big finishes.
After all there are many ways to Portrush.
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP at Royal Portrush Golf Club – July 18-21
• Winner of the Masters (April 14).
• Winner of the PGA Championship (May 19).
• Top 50 from Official World Golf Ranking (May 27).
• Top 4, not otherwise exempt, inside top 12 at The Mizuno Open (June 2).
• Top 2, not otherwise exempt, from Order of Merit on Japan Golf Tour ending with Japan Golf Tour Championship (June 9).
• Top 3, not otherwise exempt, inside top 10 at the RBC Canadian Open (June 9).
• Winner of U.S. Open (June 16).
• Winner of British Amateur, if still an amateur (June 22).
• Top 2, not otherwise exempt, inside top 8 at the KOLON Korea Open (June 23).
• Top 5 and ties, not otherwise exempt, inside Top 20 in Race to Dubai thru the BMW International Open (June 23).
• Top 5 and ties, not otherwise exempt, inside Top 20 in FedExCup points thru the Travelers Championship (June 23).
• Winner of the International European Amateur Championship, if still an amateur (June 29).
• Top 3, not otherwise exempt, inside top 10 at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters (June 30).
• Top 2, not otherwise exempt, inside top 8 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic (June 30).
• Local Final Qualifying. Top 3 at each of four sites: Fairmont St. Andrews, Notts, Prince's, St. Annes Old Links (July 2).
• Top 3, not otherwise exempt, inside top 10 at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open (July 7).
• Top 3, not otherwise exempt, inside top 10 at the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open (July 14).
• Top finisher, not otherwise exempt, inside top five at the John Deere Classic (July 14).
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