For G-Mac, it all started at the workingman’s club
July 17, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
- Rathmore Golf Club is where the love of golf began for Graeme McDowell. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – Roughly 180 steps outside the main entry gate for The Open Championship is a small clubhouse. Rathmore Golf Club is the home for the Valley course, the little brother to what the members call the “Big Club,” Royal Portrush with its more famous Dunluce course that will get all the TV attention this week.
The fact that Rathmore’s clubhouse is outside the ticketed confines of the Open is not particularly intentional, but it is somewhat symbolic. After all, when Rathmore opened in 1947, it was considered an artisans club, one created for the greens staff, the bar staff, the kitchen staff and any others of service to the more elite and well-heeled Royal Portrush.
In essence, Rathmore is the affordable club. Or as Graeme McDowell calls it, “the workingman’s club.”
Up until recently, membership requirements were strictly limited to those in the BT56 – the postal code for Portrush. Fortunately, the McDowell family qualified. The father, Kenny, took up the game in his 30s, carving out time to play despite working three jobs. He quickly introduced his three sons – George, Graeme and Gary – to the game.
With four golfers itching to play as much as possible, there was no way the McDowells could afford Royal Portrush. Thankfully, there was an option.
“There’s no point beating around the bush here – as a family, we simply couldn’t afford to be members of Portrush,” Graeme wrote in a recent blog post for EuropeanTour.com. “In fact, if we had lived in a part of the world where golf was more expensive, I would never have played the game. It’s that simple.”A special booth at Rathmore Golf Club is dedicated to Graeme McDowell. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
On Wednesday, when asked about Rathmore, G-Mac — who used to do his homework in the clubhouse locker room — was even more succinct. “We were lucky … it was cheap,” he said.
Besides playing golf, Kenny McDowell soon became heavily involved with Rathmore’s junior program. It was a chance to spend more time with his boys – and his middle son loved the atmosphere. “All I ever wanted to do was compete and be at the golf club and hang out,” Graeme said. “It certainly kept me out of trouble. Kept me from getting into any other stuff.”
It was an older Rathmore junior – Ricky Elliott – who emerged as the city’s best junior player. Graeme wanted to be like Ricky, and when Ricky opted to play collegiately in the United State (at Toledo), Graeme decided to do the same (at Alabama-Birmingham). It was a big turning point in Graeme’s career, realizing that golf could take him places that had previously been beyond his imagination.
It reached the pinnacle at the 2010 U.S. Open, when McDowell celebrated his first major victory on the 18th green at Pebble Beach with a big hug from his dad on, fittingly, Father’s Day.
That Sunday night at Rathmore, the hour was late when McDowell sank his final putt. Legally, the club was not supposed to stay open past 11 p.m. But with the tournament creeping into 2 a.m. local time, the Rathmore members closed the windows to keep their cheers and the interior lights from disturbing the neighbors.
Two days later, McDowell and his dad arrived in Portrush via private jet. That night, they celebrated again, this time in the Rathmore clubhouse. He brought his U.S. Open trophy – and the trophy now resides in a display case in the entry hallway to the club, along with other mementoes from McDowell and Rathmore’s other notable players.
“To bring the U.S. Open trophy back to the club of Rathmore was special,” McDowell wrote in his blog “I mean that with no disrespect to Royal Portrush in any shape or form. This is about my roots.”
“This club wouldn’t be the same if not for Graeme,” said Stephen Murdock, who started his one-year term as Rathmore’s captain in late March. “He’s a Rathmore man rather than a Royal Portrush man.”
And now the Open Championship is being held right outside Rathmore’s door. It’s a dream of a lifetime for the hometown boy, but one McDowell might’ve missed had he not finished inside the top 10 at the RBC Canadian Open, grabbing one of the Open qualifying spots that week.
He was already planning to attend at a charity event to start the week, a fundraising breakfast for the Portrush Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Graeme’s mother had asked him to speak. “Yes, boss, I’ll be there,” joked McDowell, who doubted he would stay in Portrush the rest of the week had he not qualified. He couldn’t stand the thought of being on the sidelines for his hometown Open, a moot point now, of course.
At the breakfast, McDowell signed autographs, posed for photos and fielded questions from the crowd of 270. Someone asked him if he would trade his U.S. Open trophy for a chance to win the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush with an 8-foot putt on Sunday. The percentage on the PGA TOUR from that distance is about 53 percent. McDowell, utilizing the math skills that once had him contemplating a degree in engineering, mentioned he’d rather have a 6-footer, which is a 70 percent conversion rate. Only then would he “think about it.”Sarah Brown is one of the many locals who grew up with Graeme McDowell at Rathmore Golf Club. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
On Tuesday, McDowell invited Murdock and Royal Portrush manager Wilma Erskine to be his guests at a golf writers’ dinner that was honoring McDowell with an award. Erskine mentioned that she had taken over as manager from a former squadron leader. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a squadron leader around here,” Murdock joked as he sat near the members’ bar at Rathmore. “Got a few binmen and punters.”
Although Rathmore is on the outside looking in this week, club members have been pleased with the way the R&A has made them feel like part of the tournament. An R&A liaison has checked in frequently to ask if they needed anything, and the R&A supplied a free weekly ticket to each Rathmore member, along with discounts for family and friends.
The Valley course gave up a couple of its holes to be included in this week’s Open setup – two replacement holes were built -- as well as other holes for infrastructure purposes and the driving range. So from that sense, Rathmore is truly part of the Open. “In no way have we been marginalized,” Murdock said.
Portrush resident Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champ and Royal Portrush member, will get to hit the first tee shot in Thursday’s opening round. McDowell, the Portrush native, will tee off about 2-1/2 hours later. That might be the only R&A decision that Rathmore members are second-guessing.Graeme McDowell signs for fans at The Open Championship. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)
“I know Darren hitting the first tee shot is only fitting,” Murdock said, “but if you ask anyone around here, Graeme should hit the first tee shot. I will say that on the first tee at 10 past 9 on Thursday morning, the stands will be full of Rathmore members."
Rathmore has been a lively hangout this week, catching fans who are going in or – more likely – leaving the tournament grounds and want to stop for one last drink and perhaps look at G-Mac’s hardware. Earlier this week, a sign out front said, “Everybody welcomed,” and indeed anybody could walk in, provided they sign a guest book.
But a complaint was lodged by another Portrush establishment, arguing that Rathmore was technically a private club and thus could not invite “everybody.” So the police came to the club Wednesday and asked for the sign to be removed.
It’s too bad, given that the workingman’s club has long welcomed locals who want to play golf but couldn’t afford the big club inside the main gate this week.