ORLANDO, Fla. -- Graeme McDowell: Major champion, close confidant to Rory McIlroy, and now restaurateur.
The 33-year-old Orlando resident via Portrush, Northern Ireland, over the weekend opened his first restaurant: Nona Blue. It’s an American tavern with touches of McDowell’s personality and heritage. It’s also just outside the gates of McDowell’s home club, Lake Nona.
Before he officially opened the doors, McDowell opened up for a Q&A on his getting involved in the restaurant business, his thoughts on Rory McIlroy, his own place in the game and more.
PGATOUR.COM: Where did the idea for the restaurant come from and why now?
GRAEME McDOWELL: I grew up in Portrush in Northern Ireland and they have a restaurant in the middle of town there, The Wine Bar, that’s probably one of the most successful restaurants in the U.K. I very nearly got involved in the restaurant business 5-6 years ago and ever since then I’ve had a burning desire to have my own place -- somewhere to come on a week off, somewhere to come on a Sunday night after a great win, somewhere to call my own where I’d be able to go behind the bar and pour a pint. In 2011 I was approached with the idea by (operating partners) Bill Bona and Joe Davi and it was kind of a no-brainer for me. We called it Nona Blue in reference to the blue that Lake Nona wears every year at the Tavistock Cup.
PGATOUR.COM: There’s not much golf memorabilia in here, though there’s a great picture of you and your dad hugging after the 2010 U.S. Open right next to a photo of Sean Connery with his quote about how he’d rather have won the U.S. Open than the Oscar for The Untouchables.
McDOWELL: That’s cool, isn’t it?! We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves too much. The fact that the restaurant is just outside the gates of Lake Nona, that’s golfy enough. There are a few references, but we didn’t want to shove the golf down people’s throats.
PGATOUR.COM: I heard a funny story about The Wine House, just a few doors down, from a few years ago. Can you share it and maybe how it influenced you?
McDOWELL: I’ve been living in Orlando for almost eight years and we were struggling to find a local hangout, somewhere to go and socialize and have a few drinks. Well, The Wine House opened and it’s full of microbrews and beers we’d never heard of. So we told them, ‘Hey, we’re local lads and going to be in here quite a bit and be pretty good customers. Is there any way you could maybe stock a few Heinekens.’ The guy said, 'No, we’re microbrews only.' I don’t think I’ve set foot back inside the place since. But really we have become friends and I think he’ll probably do well with the overflow of this place as well.
PGATOUR.COM: Speaking of friends, you’re close with Rory McIlroy. Can you relate, maybe on a smaller level after you won the U.S. Open in 2010, what he’s going through right now?
McDOWELL: I had a micro-version of what he’s going through. You know, coming from a small town in Northern Ireland, and then financially, then the spotlight … everything is increased. I’ve been shocked at how well he’s handled everything. Sure, he’s been bred for stardom since an early age and his upbringing was Tiger-esque. He’s taken it in stride. But in the end something had to give. The Nike contract, all the stardom, being the No. 1 player in the world, all the pressure -- it has taken its toll. There was a release valve that was going to blow at some point. I suppose he felt the pressure at the start of this year to live up to expectations and new sponsors and to prove he’s worth every penny. It takes a climatizing. Nothing’s changed, though. It’s still the same game; there’s no extra pressure. It’s external pressure he’s feeling inside that’s not really there. In 2011, I signed with Srixon, was the reigning U.S. Open champion, a top 5 player in the world. All these things took a toll on me.
PGATOUR.COM: How much of a distraction were all the extracurriculars for you?
McDOWELL: There were a lot of distractions off the course. All of a sudden your sponsors want a piece of you, media wants a piece of you, fans want a piece of you. Everything increases exponentially. You have to be disciplined and prioritize and continue to do the things that got you there. I stepped outside of my space for about six months from maybe March until August or September 2011. I was not the same guy. Expectations were elevated in my head. My patience levels were decreased to a minimum. I was on edge. It took me a while to acknowledge it and take a step back.
PGATOUR.COM: At what point did you adjust to it all?
McDOWELL: It took time. The first 12 months after I won the U.S. Open, the attention I was getting I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. It took me better part of 15-16 months to get a handle of who I was and what I was and how people viewed me and my position in the game. I’m excited going forward with the balance I have in my world now -- I’m going to become husband and hopefully a father soon, now a restaurateur. I’m becoming more settled on and off the course. Two or three years ago, for example, a restaurant would’ve been an unnecessary distraction I didn’t have time for in my world.
PGATOUR.COM: What’s the hardest thing once you do win a major and become a more recognizable figure in the game?
McDOWELL: The toughest part is your own expectation levels. I remember reading one of Dr. Bob Rotella’s books about a U.S. Women’s Open champion who for every great shot she hit it was thinking, ‘Well, you’re supposed to that because you’re the U.S. Open champion.’ And for every bad shot she hit she berated herself. There’s a lot of internal mental pressure you put on yourself at that level.
PGATOUR.COM: How much have you talked to Rory the last few weeks?
McDOWELL: We spoke via text after the Friday wisdom tooth incident, and he told me what he was feeling, and I told him I knew a little about what he was going through. I gave him a few words of advice and I told him I’m always here. We practiced at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and he seemed like he’s in a much better place now.
PGATOUR.COM: The Masters is a month away. I’m always curious about the perspectives of players from other parts of the world. Where does it sit in your eyes?
McDOWELL: There’s something special about Augusta National. I remember growing up as a kid when we had four or maybe five stations and the Wednesday night Masters preview would come on about 10:30 p.m. You’d live for that as a kid -- the hallowed fairways, the azaleas, the music. You couldn’t wait for it. Augusta always had that amazing aura to it. It’s the only major that returns to the same venue every year. The Open Championship is the one I’d love to win the most, but the green jacket is a very close second. I’d love to win all four majors. I’d give my right arm right now -- I maybe really would.
PGATOUR.COM: What makes Rory such a threat at Augusta? Is he the type of player, like Tiger, who can contend there every year?
McDOWELL: His ball shape is different now from what it was a few years ago. His old ball flight moved a lot from right to left, I mean a lot. He’s probably one of the best drivers of the ball in the world. Aggressive, long, very accurate. And that right-to-left ball shape he has is perfect for Augusta. Stand on the second tee box and whip it around the corner 60 yards past everyone else, stand on No. 10 and whip it around the corner, No. 13 whip it around the corner. There are 4-5 holes out there that if he designed a hole that’s exactly how they’d look. I look at those tee shots and I hate those tee shots. His ball changed has changed a lot, and he has straightened it out, so a few of these might not fit his eye as much as they used to but when you’re as long and accurate as Rory is, that’s the key at Augusta.
PGATOUR.COM: Back to the restaurant. One of the keys is a good design. Your fiancee is in that business, but I understand she didn’t have a hand in Nona Blue?
McDOWELL: We couldn’t have afforded her! I met her when I was building my house in Lake Nona and I hired her company to design my house. We hit it off instantly and the rest is history. She’s got a great eye and expensive taste. But the guys probably kept her out of the loop a little bit intentionally because they probably knew she’d blow the budget.
PGATOUR.COM: And the best thing on the menu is ... ?
McDOWELL: We have a phenomenal wood-burning grill. The steaks, ribs and meats that come off it are so flavorful. I haven’t tasted everything but our meat loaf is getting phenomenal reviews. I’m still working on trying everything, but I’ll get there.