A win, a new restaurant and McDowell is all smiles

By Doug Ferguson
Published on
A win, a new restaurant and McDowell is all smiles

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Graeme McDowell wasn't even sure he would be eligible for The Players Championship going into his seventh season on the PGA Tour. His biggest concern was making sure he kept his card.

One week changed everything in so many ways.

His victory in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba came with a two-year exemption and a spot in the Masters. He's also in The Players Championship, which is significant because of the timing. There's a chance his new restaurant — Nona Blue Modern Tavern — will be open down the street from the TPC Sawgrass.

"Obviously, things changed immensely last week because it takes care of a lot of business for me," McDowell said Wednesday at the RSM Classic.

He mainly was referring to the business of golf.

Even though he finished third in the HSBC Champions at the end of last year, McDowell said that only disguised a game on the slide. He wasn't playing well at the Ryder Cup, though he managed to scratch out a singles win over Jordan Spieth at Gleneagles. And he was exposed when 2015 began.

"Came into this year and I couldn't hide anymore," he said. "My results started to find a bit of a downturn. I had to strip my priorities back to basics. It was simple. If I continue to play like this, my employment is under serious jeopardy. ... I guess when it came down to it, if I'm going to have a job, I wanted my job to be here in America.

"I want to be employed on the best tour in the world."

The winning shot was a 5-iron to 3 feet on the 18th hole in Mexico to win a three-man playoff, and it brightened his outlook considerably. The victory, his 14th worldwide and first since the French Open in 2013, was five days after the announcement of his business expansion.

McDowell and two business partners opened Nona Blue outside Lake Nona in Orlando, Florida, and it has been a big hit. It's a modern tavern, with a large, rectangular bar as the centerpiece, along with plenty of televisions, casual dining and outdoor patio.

It did well enough to consider an expansion, and McDowell's group began looking at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, about two years ago.

"We thought we were ready for the next level to see we can travel," he said.

The restaurant business can be as difficult as trying to hit 5-iron to a tucked pin with a tournament on the line. McDowell sought out the advice of Chris Sullivan, who started the popular Outback Steakhouse chain, and was told that location was everything. The trick was to keep the restaurants close enough to get to them, and McDowell thinks it's important for him to maintain as much of a presence as possible.

Thankfully, he's not anywhere near the wood-fired grill. Or behind the bar.

"I'm much more comfortable on the other side of the bar, trying my best not to drink the profits," he said.

And he's getting more comfortable on the golf course, which is even more important.

"I think there's a certain amount of complacency that comes with being a top 25, top 50 in the world player," he said. "Complacency of schedule, your complacency that your good golf will always be there."

He hasn't missed a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but all those exemptions were about to expire except for the U.S. Open. His 2010 victory at Pebble Beach came with a 10-year exemption. More than the majors, he wasn't in the World Golf Championships, The Players or even events like the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

McDowell always planned to come to Sea Island to try to start well in the new season, and the victory in Mexico didn't change his mind. He's part of a field that includes British Open champion Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and the father-son duo of tournament host Davis Love III and his son, Dru, who earned the final sponsor exemption.

After that, he's headed to Hawaii.

McDowell shot 62 in the final round at Kapalua in his only appearance in 2011, and he didn't return after his next PGA Tour win.

"Goes back to that complacency thing — 'Well, my good golf is always going to be there. I'll skip Kapalua this time around.' I wasn't going to skip this time," he said. "I had been dreaming of winning a golf tournament. I've really been grinding hard this year. I said to myself, 'Next time one of these wins comes along, I'm going to enjoy and all the perks that go with it."