'My brother the greenkeeper', with Graeme McDowell

11 October 2019 Your Course Features
Gary and Graeme McDowell.jpg

Gary and Graeme McDowell at Royal Portrush

As The Open drew to a close this July, a member of the McDowell family stood on the 18th green at Royal Portrush, soaking up the applause from the crowd.

But the hometown hero being congratulated by the grandstands wasn’t Graeme, the 2010 US Open champion and four-time Ryder Cup player, but rather his younger brother, Gary, who had played such an important role in the success of the event as part of Royal Portrush’s greenkeeping team.

Gary, 37, has been a greenkeeper at Royal Portrush ever since he left school. There was a time when he and Graeme weren’t so different in their golfing abilities, but the two brothers had very different aspirations.

“Gary always had the better swing,” said Graeme, 40. “But he was never as comfortable with the grind of competitive golf.

“Like any job, mine is great when the sun shines and things are going the way I want them to, but the tough times can be difficult.

“I have always been proud of my brother and his commitment to the team at Portrush since he was 16. He is proud of his work and happy with his life.”

The two brothers are members at Rathmore Golf Club, which sits beside Royal Portrush in the centre of the town. Gary once played to a +4 handicap and so clearly had the natural ability to succeed, but found his calling helping to prepare the links venue.



“I’ll leave the golf to Graeme and I’ll do the easy job!” said Gary. “This is one of the best places you could ever work. I enjoy being out in the fresh air and being out, around the golf course.

“There was a certain point when I was close to him in ability,” said Gary. “But obviously Graeme’s put in the practice – you don’t get there any other way.

“I get real pleasure out of the different things that you do as a greenkeeper, which people perhaps don’t realise you have to do to prepare a course. It’s true that every day is different and I love it.”

Out on the course, Graeme said that if a greenkeeping team doesn’t have massive resources, they should focus on ensuring bunkers and greens are well presented. 

He added: “It is so difficult to get a tough but fair bunker set up. And great surfaces on the greens can make up for some small imperfections from the tee to the green.”

With a family member on the inside during the build-up to The Open, Graeme had the inside track on the architectural changes, bunker reshaping and course preparation as the event approached. With the Open returning to Royal Portrush for the first time since 1953, the pressure was on for Gary and the rest of the Royal Portrush team – led by Graeme Beatt – to perform and work was under way to prepare the course years ahead of the event actually taking place.

“I was always aware of how huge a machine The Open was,” said Graeme. “But to see its footprint laid down on the course and the town you grew up, gave me much more of a sense of size and logistics, it was amazing.

“Growing up, many of the members of Rathmore were on the staff – including Gary – and so I was in tune with the behind-the-scenes work that goes in, especially in the tough Portrush winters. 

“I guess I have always taken more care to be respectful of course condition due to that upbringing.”

GettyImages - Gary and Graeme McDowell.jpg


Success on the PGA Tour has enabled Graeme to relocate to Florida, where he now calls Lake Nona home. Gary turned down the opportunity to follow his brother to America, preferring to stay in Northern Ireland. But with Gary an active BIGGA member who attends events hosted by the association, Graeme has kept in touch with the greenkeeping industry in the UK.

“Sadly, the golf club culture can be a difficult one,” said Graeme. “Very often it is easier to criticise the course you play every day, rather than see the 12-month journey that a course has to go through to stay playable.

“There will always be times of the year when the greenkeepers must make sacrifices for great playability in the future.

“To any golfer, I say respect your course. By repairing a couple of extra ball marks and replacing divots, you can leave it in better condition than you found it.”


We test G-Mac’s greenkeeping knowledge with some quickfire questions

What is aeration?

Punching of turf to allow for better absorption of water and airflow


What is topdressing?

Application of sand or mix to smooth surfaces


How do you change a golf hole?

Using a tool to cut out a plug without causing crowning, which then replaces the current cup, application of liner and maybe some white paint for us fussy tour players


What is fusarium?

Absolutely no idea. An area to grow new turf?


What would you do with a grinder?

I would take some bounce off my sand wedge! But you might use it to…sharpen cutting blades?


Score: 4/5

The Autumn 2019 edition of Your Course is in clubhouses now and features this and a number of other interesting topics about the work of greenkeepers and how they prepare the golf course for your enjoyment. You can also download a digital copy of the magazine from the BIGGA website.

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