PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – There was the group of players he beat and the group of players he joined.
With his whole career in front of him and a U.S. Open title behind him, 30-year-old Graeme McDowell now goes about trying to be remembered more as the guy who knocked off Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els and not merely the latest on an eclectic list of surprising champions at golf’s most unpredictable major.
McDowell played a fourth straight round of unflappable golf Sunday at Pebble Beach and held off the sport’s fearsome threesome to prove, yet again, that a great track record guarantees nothing when it comes to the U.S. Open.
He shot 3-over-par 74 to finish the tournament at even-par 284 and beat Frenchman Gregory Havret, the 391st-ranked player in the world, by a stroke. But it was the way McDowell kept the Big Three in his rearview mirror all day long that was so impressive. Els finished two shots behind, while Woods and Mickelson were another shot back, tied for fourth.
McDowell, from Northern Ireland, was also helped by the stunning collapse of Dustin Johnson, who also was in search of his first major. Johnson led McDowell by three coming into the day. He gave that away and more by making 7, 6 and 5 on Nos. 2, 3 and 4 en route to an 82 – an afterthought who simply tried to stay out of McDowell’s way on the back nine.
“As soon as Dustin made a triple, it was a wide open tournament,” Mickelson said. “Many guys had a chance.”
McDowell took advantage. He joined Geoff Ogilvy, Michael Campbell and Lucas Glover among the list of players who have used the U.S. Open to surprisingly break into the major-champion’s category. And that’s just the list from the last decade. The U.S. Open, with it’s punishing rough, dry greens and close-to-the-edge setups – all of which turned Pebble Beach into a beautiful monster this week – proclaims itself to be the toughest test in golf.
It is, as this year’s winning score of even par attests to, and because of that, it is a tournament that’s every bit as likely to produce a Tiger Woods or Ernie Els as a champion as a Graeme McDowell or a Gregory Havret.
“When you have Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els there, you’re not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you’ve got to fend off,” McDowell said.
As it turned out, Havret was the closest competition. But when he bogeyed the par-3 17th, then failed to make birdie on the par-5 18th, all McDowell had to do was hit three shots to the green on 18, then two-putt from 20 feet to seal his victory.
He made only one birdie Sunday – an eight-foot putt on the fifth hole, and his final round was the highest score by a U.S. Open champion since Andy North in 1985.
“I can’t believe I’m standing with this right now,” McDowell said, posing with the silver trophy. “It’s a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming it all my life. Two putts to win the U.S. Open. Can’t believe it happened.”
He did it with four straight days of golf that leaned more toward steady than flashy.
Woods and Mickelson, meanwhile, were the ones who put the `Wow’ into the Open, and with the resurgence of Els, there was plenty of star power – three of the biggest names taking three of the late tee times for a Father’s Day round being shown during prime time.
Woods struck the ball as well as he had since his comeback during a round of 5-under 66 on Saturday that put him in third place, a threat to win his 15th major. But when he opened Sunday by three-putting No. 1 for a bogey, then teed off into the fescue on No. 3 and had to lay up, it was clear he would be in catch-up mode the rest of the day. He shot 75.
“Our game plan was just if we shot under par for the day we would probably win,” Woods said. “The golf course was playing too hard, too fast, and you can get away from you pretty quickly out there.”
Mickelson shot his 66 on Friday when his putter got hot and looked like a real threat to win the second leg of the Grand Slam. But he fell back Saturday and his birdie to open the round Sunday was the only one he made all day. He was in catch-up mode – to the point of desperation. Trailing by three with three holes left, he went pin hunting on No. 16. Missed the green, and told his caddie, Jim Mackay, “I took a chance, it didn’t pay off.”
“All I had to do was shoot even par in the back, and I’m in a playoff,” Mickelson said. “I wasn’t able to do it. Obviously, it was tough.”
Els got to 3-under par and briefly into a tie with McDowell midway through the front nine. But his tee shot on 10 went off the course, over the edge of the cliff, matted in the thick grass that leads down to the beach. He tiptoed down the hill but never found his ball. And when he came back to drop on the fairway, he chunked it, hit that ball into the tall grass, as well, and was lucky to make a 6 from there.
Els did not stick around to talk after playing the last 10 holes in 5-over par.
Instead, it was McDowell doing the talking. He came into the tournament with five victories on the European Tour, including one in his last tournament – in Wales earlier this month.
He got into the U.S. Open by narrowly making the top 50 in the world at the deadline to avoid qualifying, which he said he probably would have skipped anyway. Good thing it didn’t come to that. He’s now No. 13 and won’t have to worry about his spot in majors – or on the European Ryder Cup team later this year.
And for all the talk about first-time flukes at the U.S. Open, he joins an impressive list of players to win the Open at Pebble, one of America’s most celebrated courses: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods.
And now, McDowell.
“`I’m not quite sure if I belong in that list,” he said, “but, hey, I’m there now.”