PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Anyone looking for excitement in the final round of the U.S. Open is at the wrong major.
They call it the toughest test in golf for a reason. This championship is won by not losing. And if the expectations are any different, blame it on the false expectations created by Torrey Pines.
That’s where Tiger Woods delivered perhaps the most riveting U.S. Open in the last 10 years. The lasting images from 2008 at Torrey Pines are Woods holing a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force a playoff, Rocco Mediate making the long, downhill birdie putt on the 15th hole to take the lead in the playoff, and Woods making another birdie on the 18th to force overtime.
The stage was set for such dramatics on Sunday at Pebble Beach.
Graeme McDowell was in front and three of the best players from this generation – Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, with a combined 184 victories and 21 majors – were poised to chase him down.
The chase turned into five-car crash.
The top five players on the leaderboard, including Gregory Havret of France, combined to make two birdies on the back nine. One of them came from Els, whose 5-iron on the par-3 12th hopped out of the rough and rolled 2 feet away. The other came from Woods, who blasted out of the bunker fronting the 14th green to inside a foot.
Two things stand out about McDowell’s victory.
– He started the final round three shots out of the lead, closed with a 3-over 74 and won the championship.
“I was surprised,” said McDowell, whose 74 was the highest final round by a U.S. Open champion since Andy North shot a 74 in the final round at Oakland Hills in 1985. “I didn’t think 3-over par was going to get the job done today. I really didn’t.”
– It was the second straight year that the U.S. Open champion made only one birdie in the final round. Lucas Glover waited until the 16th hole at Bethpage Black before hitting that 8-iron to 6 feet. McDowell hit a 7-iron to about 8 feet at the par-5 fifth.
Augusta National has restored the roars to the Masters with clever hole locations and allow for birdies and eagles, and this year featured wild shifts in momentum. Y.E. Yang’s biggest moment at Hazeltine in the PGA Championship last year was chipping in for eagle. The British Open has a little of everything, depending on the links and the wind.
The U.S. Open is more about survival. Always has been.
Of the final five groups that teed off, Davis Love IIIJack Nicklaus hitting the 1-iron off the pin on the 17th in 1972, and Tom Watson chipping in for birdie behind the 17th green 10 years later. He also saved par with a chip from the rough below the 10th green, a shot that earned a replay during the NBC Sports telecast.
Tom Kite chipped in from behind the seventh green and holed a monster putt on the 12th when he won in 1992. And even though Woods hit the ball too flawlessly for any shot that stands out, his 7-iron out of the rough on the par-5 sixth is what prompted TV analyst Roger Maltbie to proclaim, “It’s not a fair fight.” Woods won by 15 that year.
The signature moment this year?
The most significant shot for McDowell might have been the beautiful bunker shot he hit on the 12th to within 2 feet to save par that kept his lead at two shots when he couldn’t afford to lose any.
He kept up one tradition at Pebble Beach. Even though the tees were moved forward to give players a chance to reach the par-5 18th in two shots, the closing hole had no bearing on the championship. Once McDowell saw that Havret failed to make a 10-foot birdie on the last hole, he put the fairway metal up and hit 8-iron to lay up for a safe par.
The USGA erected a large video board in a pavilion outside the merchandise tent and outdoor restaurant, on the way to the golf course, which allowed fans to see highlights of past U.S. Opens.
When they show the highlights from 2010 at Pebble Beach, don’t be surprised if everyone keeps walking.
That’s nothing against McDowell, a 30-year-old from Northern Ireland with a game he showed was capable of winning a major. The excitement was watching him cradle the silver trophy like a newborn.
He earned it. He shot the lowest score. That’s what the U.S. Open is about – not style points.