News & Opinion

Graeme McDowell turns back hands of time

The Northern Irishman, who was on the clock in the 2nd round of the Saudi International after he consented to an on-course TV interview, shrugs off the warning to end a nearly 6-year winless streak on the European Tour

KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – Graeme McDowell was walking merrily down the fourth hole in the second round of the Saudi International, talking with commentator Tim Barter of Sky Sports about the round and the Royal Greens course.

It’s something that occurs routinely on Sky Sports broadcasts and adds a little humanity to the telecast as viewers listen to a player’s insights during the competition.

Saudi International
The sun hasn’t quite set yet on the career of 40-year-old Graeme McDowell, who shakes off a pace-of-play misstep to win the European Tour’s Saudi International.

But on Friday, the new European Tour rules for pace of play that allow competitors 40 seconds to hit a shot – 50 seconds if they are the first in their group to play – got in the way of the pure entertainment value of the interview.

McDowell had a difficult second shot of 215 yards from the semi rough into the wind, so he went through his routine, but because he was 50 yards behind the group when he finished his interview, it took him longer than usual. And because the group – American Phil Mickelson and Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello composed the rest of the threesome – already was on the clock, the rules official dinged the Northern Irishman for slow play for the 84 seconds that he took to play.

“That kind of upset my rhythm for a couple holes,” said McDowell, who shrugged off the incident to shoot 12-under 268 and hold off runner-up Dustin Johnson and a star-studded field for his first victory on the European Tour in nearly six years. “But, hey, we've got to play faster.”

On Sunday, McDowell proved to be even more reflective after his first triumph on his home tour since the 2014 French Open. (He won the PGA Tour’s opposite-field Corales Puntacana Resort title in 2019.)

“The European Tour rules officials handled it very well in the end,” he said. “Of course, I felt hard done by in the moment.”

Those comments underscore the class act that is McDowell, but in the big picture, what was the official thinking?

“It’s just uncalled for. What are you doing? Are you working with us or against us?” Ernie Els said a day after the incident. “That’s the problem I have when you give all the power to the rules people. … It’s the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever seen.”

Els brings up valid questions.

It’s clear that pace of play is an issue for players and that they think it needs to be addressed worldwide, but at what cost?

Slow play has a twofold effect: it cuts into the entertainment value of the product and also harms the competitive nature of the game for the participants.

With those issues in mind, shouldn’t the rules officials have used some discretion in the application of the new rules in the McDowell case?

If the official does not have that discretion under the rules, then the rules need to be changed to allow for the fair but also prudent application of the rules.

The new rules clearly are a work in progress, and discussions behind the scenes to address the issue at the highest level of the European Tour and Sky Sports are part of that change.

McDowell stated that the incident on what was his 13th hole put him off his game. Golf at this level is brutally difficult, which is evident week in and week out amid the stress of the major pro tours. How a player copes with that stress ultimately determines his level of success. Adding an unwanted – or, as in the case of McDowell, an unwarranted – distraction makes the game only harder.

McDowell had a dagger over his head that another slow time in the final two rounds would have cost him a stroke. Though it didn’t happen, the possibility remained that he could have run into a difficult shot and not been able to exercise his one allocated timeout. (Players have the option to request a one-time extension, or timeout, per round, for an extra 40 seconds.)

McDowell also could have run into an overzealous rules official who might not have taken the situation into context before ruling.

Either way, McDowell should not be put in that position, nor any other player who acts in a similar manner. McDowell was scheduled to have caught an early Monday flight to Pebble Beach for this week’s PGA Tour event at the site of his 2010 U.S. Open triumph.

I expect the European Tour to amend its pace-of-play rules immediately. If not, more McDowell-type incidents will occur and fans ultimately will be the losers. Candid interviews on Sky Sports likely will not occur if players remain fearful of a grim rules official.

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