By Adam Schupak
ORLANDO, Fla. – Besides the inevitable question of "What's Tiger really like?" (Wish I knew!) the most common question I get asked as a golf writer is, “Who are the good guys on the PGA Tour?” Without hesitation, I answer that Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell is the player with whom I'd most like to have a beer, and it has nothing to do with my fondness for Guinness.
What separates McDowell from the pack is the way he connects with fans. Known as G-Mac, he is a man of the people, quick with a smile and a quip or a quote for the media. In 2014, at age 34, McDowell was honored by golf writers with the Jim Murray Award, which essentially is a lifetime-achievement recognition for being an all-around good guy. Arnold Palmer received the honor in 2002 as its second recipient.
That's why the selection of McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, as the lone Arnold Palmer Invitational competitor to be among five tournament co-hosts this week is fitting to me. McDowell's two children were born at the nearby Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, and he broke through in the U.S. with a runner-up finish here at Bay Hill in 2005 to earn enough of a world-rankings boost to qualify for his first Masters.
“Arnold was a force of nature, on and off the course,” McDowell said. “We can’t fill his shoes, but we can carry on his passion for helping others. I’m honored to be part of such a remarkable event.”
McDowell shares many of Palmer's attributes besides being one of the most personable players on Tour. He knows that he likely wouldn't have a beer with his name on it if not for the popularity of Palmer's eponymous lemonade-iced tea drink. On Feb. 10-12, McDowell demonstrated his man-of-the-people appeal as the host of the inaugural Graeme McDowell Fantasy Golf Camp in Orlando. In his day, it's not hard to imagine Palmer leading one for his army of fans.
Twenty participants with handicaps ranging from scratch to 18 paid $5,500 for the G-Mac Fantasy Camp experience. The group consisted of fathers and sons, guys on a buddy trip and even an Irishman from Long Island. Dick O'Connor, a 64-year-old salesman for an incentive program and global events company, played with McDowell in a PGA Tour pro-am once and jumped at the chance for a return engagement with his favorite player.
In addition to the golf and accommodations, O'Connor and his fellow fantasy campers received a bag of swag from McDowell's various sponsors, a welcome dinner at McDowell's Nona Blue restaurant, a clinic and a question-and-answer session with G-Mac. They also played three holes with McDowell (as a plus-4 handicap) each day during the Ryder Cup-style competition at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes.
"What made it was Graeme's personality and his genuine desire to give everyone an experience you can't buy," O'Connor said. "You can't fake it from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. It takes a very special person to want to give that experience and go the extra mile."
Colin Morrissey, McDowell's manager, said he expects the fantasy camp won't be a one-off. Don't be surprised if one is held in Northern Ireland someday. "We see it as an opportunity for the next 10, 15, 20 years," Morrissey said.
McDowell teamed with ProCamps, a Cincinnati company that performs fantasy camps with the likes of basketball’s Shaquille O'Neal and football’s Larry Fitzgerald and Rob Gronkowski, among other clients. McDowell does plenty of charity events, but he termed this one a business venture, something at which Palmer excelled over the years.
Headlining a fantasy camp also proved to be good practice for being host of the API. It’s also further proof that McDowell is the closest thing to a modern-day Arnie. To me, that's no fantasy.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak