This past spring, Graeme McDowell was regarded by UAB fans as the biggest name in the history of the Blazer Golf program. Today, the sweet-swinging star from Northern Ireland is one of the biggest names in the sport.
On Father’s Day weekend, McDowell held off the likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els to win the U.S. Open, one of golf’s four major championships, at Pebble Beach Golf Links, which is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful — and difficult — courses in the world. The win marked the culmination of a lifelong dream for McDowell, who already had five previous wins on the European Tour.
For UAB men’s golf coach Alan Kaufman, it was a big boost for a program that will now be forever linked with a U.S. Open champion.
“The only thing I can think to compare it to would be when [UAB alumna] Vonetta Flowers won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics,” Kaufman says. “But as far as golf is concerned, we’ve never had anything like this. The times we’ve made the NCAA Tournament have been exciting, but obviously we’ve never had the kind of international exposure that we’re getting this summer because of Graeme.”
Diamond in the rough
In an interview with ESPN shortly after the U.S. Open, McDowell described himself as merely a “pretty good amateur golfer” before he enrolled at UAB in 1998. Though it sounds like false modesty now, Kaufman says that description fits with his memory of the young golfer who found his way to Birmingham through a series of lucky coincidences.
Chris Devlin, a native of Northern Ireland who was playing collegiately at UAB, recommended that Kaufman take a look at his countryman McDowell, who was then a little-known junior player in the seaside resort village of Portrush. When the scholarship money for McDowell fell a little short, Devlin gave up part of his own scholarship to help get McDowell onto the team.
Despite his small-town background, McDowell adjusted quickly to life in Birmingham. “He seemed to fit in here pretty much from the start,” Kaufman says.
McDowell’s golf game, by contrast, “took a little longer” to develop, Kaufman says. “When he got here, he couldn’t hit the ball as far as he does now, but he hit it straight and had a good short game. He was a solid player, and you could tell he had potential. But none of us had any idea he was going to be as good as he turned out to be.”
After a fairly undistinguished freshman season, McDowell won the last tournament of the year in what Kaufman called a turning point for the program. He produced a solid sophomore campaign, then made a big leap forward as a junior, earning All-American honors and helping UAB advance to the NCAA finals for the first time in school history. A year later, he again earned All-American honors after winning six of 12 tournaments and garnering the Fred Haskins Award, given annually to the nation’s top collegiate golfer.
McDowell turned pro in 2002, winning the Volvo Scandinavian Masters in just his fourth start on the European Tour. He added four more wins in the ensuing years, including a victory at the Wales Open this past spring. But nothing in his career could rival the Father’s Day triumph at Pebble Beach.
While the course took its toll on the rest of the field, McDowell managed to shoot an even par the first day, followed by six birdies in the second round to take the lead.
The tricky course was a natural fit for McDowell, Kaufman says. “Pebble Beach is a links-style course, similar to the course Graeme grew up on in Portrush,” says Kaufman, who traveled to California to watch the first three rounds in person. “You’re rewarded for hitting the ball straight, and the greens there are very small, so you want to place the ball right in front of the green where you can chip or putt up onto it.
“That suits Graeme’s game pretty well. He’s always been able to hit the ball straight, and now he can hit it plenty far. Also, since he left UAB, he has developed into an outstanding putter. He was second in putting at Pebble Beach, which was one of the main reasons he was able to win.”
In the days after McDowell’s big win, UAB’s logo appeared often on national news broadcasts as casual fans began to learn more about the U.S. Open champion.
That kind of exposure, Kaufman says, is invaluable to a program like UAB. “People in the state and in the Southeast know about UAB, but when you recruit outside the region or outside the country, people aren’t as familiar,” he says. “When I mentioned Graeme’s name in the past, some people knew who he was and some didn’t. Today, everyone knows.”