News & Opinion

Crisis leaves bad taste with Graeme McDowell

Northern Irishman, riding a resurgent golf career on the PGA Tour, faces economic downturn with tough decisions as a restaurateur

By most measures, professional golfers have pretty good lives. Many of us would like to experience it, if only for one day.

But in the new reality that is the coronavirus pandemic, professional golfers’ lives can be much more difficult and stressful than the rest of us might imagine.

Most successful athletes over time diversify their investment portfolios. One popular option is a restaurant.

Graeme McDowell at his Nona Blue Modern Tavern
Graeme McDowell, in better times at his Nona Blue restaurant in the Lake Nona community in Orlando, Fla.

The late Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman are some of the prominent golfers who are or have been associated with restaurants.

Graeme McDowell, a former major champion from Northern Ireland, is a part-owner of Nona Blue Modern Tavern, with locations in Orlando and Ponte Vedra Beach in his adopted home state of Florida.

McDowell, 40, whose four PGA Tour victories include the 2010 U.S. Open, is much more involved in operations at both restaurants. He joined a conference call earlier this week to decide how to proceed amid the steep economic downturn. The operators decided to suspend business.

Just a year ago, McDowell’s primary focus was to return to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2015. He did, winning the 2019 Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship, an opposite-field event in the Dominican Republic in March. Less than a year later, he won the Saudi International for his 10th title on the European Tour.

This week, however, instead of playing in the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas, McDowell is like so many other small-business owners. Nona Blue, with locations in Orlando’s Lake Nona community where McDowell and his family reside, and near the Tour’s headquarters in northeast Florida, trades on its pub atmosphere. Thus, takeout service has been a very small part of its sales. In facing how the virus has gutted his business, McDowell and his investors laid off approximately 200 workers.

“It’s been difficult to get focused,” said McDowell, who has risen to No. 49 in the Official World Golf Ranking, of his efforts to maintain his momentum in golf. “I feel like it’s taken me certainly 10 days to grasp the magnitude of what we’re going through and what it kind of means not only for golf, but all sport and really life in general.”

McDowell predicts that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will change the world as we know it in a lot of ways, including how we interact with others.

For his staff, McDowell is focused on trying to compensate them as best as he can: wages through March and all insurance and benefits paid through April. At some point, as with any business, if no money is coming in, the ability to keep paying the staff a salary and contributing to benefits becomes more and more difficult.

“Cash flow becomes an issue,” McDowell said of his restaurant operations. “I mean, how long can we sustain this? How long can we take care of our staff with the existing cash flow? At the end of the day, we need enough money in our accounts to open our restaurants when the time comes.”

McDowell and his partners will examine the proposed $2 trillion federal stimulus package, which was being finalized late Wednesday, for potential small-business assistance. McDowell said he has savvy and experienced restaurant operators who are part of the ownership/management team, but the economic angst has shifted his focus from golf onto the lives of his business and his workers.

“We have two pretty successful little restaurant businesses going, and all of the sudden we’re closing our doors and barely have enough money to keep them alive for the next two or three months,” said McDowell, citing the mental effects. “You take a successful operation and something like this, and then basically all of the sudden you’re thinking about will you be able to come out of the other end successfully, and that’s scary.”

At some point, McDowell knows that golf will be his prime focus, but he can’t be certain when that might be.

Because he is among the top 50-ranked players in the world, McDowell sat on the cusp of getting to play in his 10th Masters, his first since missing the cut in 2016. With the world ranking frozen and the Masters’ future this year uncertain, he can do no more than the rest of us this spring: wait for golf to return.

When it does, McDowell says two weeks of preparation will be enough. But the question for Nona Blue and McDowell’s career is, when do we start up again?

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.