Many Losses One Mans Gain


PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – If every major championship has a personality, the 2010 U.S. Open would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The good was very good, the bad about as bad as bad gets, most of which was impossible to see coming. When a final round full of backpedaling finally shook itself out, the leaderboard almost seemed dysfunctional. It made more sense if you looked at it upside-down.

Nothing against Graeme McDowell, who clearly emerged as the most consistent player from start to finish and did everything a U.S. Open champion is supposed to do. At the beginning of the week, I said that anybody with designs on winning would have to make a vast majority of their 8-footers, and McDowell made more than anyone. He kept his golf ball in front of him, stayed away from the cliffs and high grass, and relied on his solid iron play to navigate Pebble Beach in its most resistant state.

As for the Dude in the Red Shirt, you need a vivid imagination to figure out how Tiger Woods had even half a chance heading into Sunday. Other than on Saturday’s back nine, Woods looked no better than average. He clearly resolved issues with his golf swing after hitting it so poorly at the Memorial, but his chipping and putting, which are requisites to any level of success at Pebble Beach, cost him repeatedly in the first two rounds.

It was strange to see Tiger, the king of stroke economization, fritter away so many on a course where he has produced a sizeable amount of history. The guy has proven to be nearly unbeatable on three or four PGA Tour venues, and Pebble Beach would have been on that list if he’d continued to play in the Tour’s winter hit-and-giggle. Woods griped about the bumpy Poa-annua after his late round Thursday, yet he didn’t bother to practice there in the afternoon.

In 2000, he was on the practice green until the night before the U.S. Open started. Nowadays, he’s off the grounds and doing whatever he does well before noon.

He spent Sunday two or three strokes outside serious contention, beginning his day with an utterly inexcusable three-putt on the first hole, and when the time came when he had to make a move, Woods wasn’t sharp enough to make something happen. It all added up to a misleading tie for fourth with Phil Mickelson, who basically had the same kind of week – one good round, a couple of mediocre ones, not nearly enough firepower come Sunday.

When Dustin Johnson began impersonating a 12 handicap on the second green, his big third-round lead vanishing like that golf ball he smashed into the junk left of the third fairway, Woods, Mickelson and Ernie Els all had been handed the break they needed. Els was the only one to gain any real ground on the lead, but when things tightened up on the final nine, he committed a series of blunders you rarely, if ever, see from one of the game’s best tough-course golfers.

If the Big Easy wasn’t despondent over this loss, it was only because he departed the grounds before anybody had a chance to detect his anguish. This was an agonizing defeat for a guy with a closet full of competitive skeletons, maybe even tougher to stomach than the buzzer-beater Mickelson threw at him in the 2004 Masters or the playoff loss to Todd Hamilton at the British Open three months later. At least Mickelson played extraordinary golf and grabbed that tournament by the throat. At least Hamilton played mistake-free golf on a course where trouble was easy to find.

This U.S. Open was hanging off a low-lying branch, just waiting to be plucked. McDowell trailed by three going into Sunday, shot 74 and won despite playing the final 10 holes in four over par, despite making just one birdie all day – at the par-3 fifth. The top three players of this generation, a trio with a combined 21 major titles, all sat within semi-striking distance, yet none came close to chasing down a guy with zero victories and five top-10s in 57 career starts on the U.S. tour.

McDowell claimed our national championship with a final-round score three strokes higher than any of his other 18-hole totals. He did it without so much as having to make a putt, which is what happens when your only pursuer, in this case Gregory Havret, is 391st in the world ranking. More than any golf tournament on earth, the outcome of a U.S. Open is determined largely by the failure of those who fall short, but the 110th edition stretched every rule in the book on matters involving winning and losing, how it all came about and who ended up where.

John Hawkins appears on Golf Central every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET and on the Grey Goose 19th Hole every Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

It was not pro golf’s finest hour. When I saw USGA setup man Mike Davis afterward, he looked he’d just spent four days on a worry bender – the first words out of his mouth were, “Well, it’s over.” Davis did a good job with what he had, but Pebble Beach should undergo some changes before it hosts the 2019 U.S. Open. You can start with the 14th green complex, a combination of too small, too contoured and too penal when you factor in the speed of today’s putting surfaces. When the world’s best players are afraid to hit sand wedges at a target, the situation calls for further examination.

I’m all for a little blood, but I’d prefer the players draw it by virtue of their own doing. The cost of a mistake at the 14th is outrageously disproportionate to crime itself, but then, everything seemed hyperbolized last week. On a beautiful piece of land, we were treated to a rather unsightly version of the competitive element.
A few hours after landing in San Francisco to cover a 1992 playoff game between the 49ers and Washington Redskins, my sports editor at the Washington Times called with a new command. “Drive down to the Monterey Peninsula and play Pebble Beach,” he ordered. It sounded a lot better than spending an afternoon listening to George Seifert or officiating the Joe Montana-Steve Young debate in Ghirardelli Square.

What I got 18 years ago was fairly typical of the Pebble Beach experience: a glorious day, a 5 ½-hour round, the jaw-dropping beauty that begins at the par-4 fourth—and the long stretch of underrated holes, the Pebble nobody talks about. What makes this course one of America’s best isn’t its proximity to the Pacific, the sea lions or Clint Eastwood. From a strategic standpoint, original architects Jack Neville and Douglas Grant created a subtle masterpiece, a place where the exceptionally small greens can feel like moving targets in a two- or three-club breeze.

When prepared with a certain amount of discretion, Pebble Beach is the ideal U.S. Open venue, and USGA setup man Mike Davis has all the dials in all the right places this week. The concept of “graduated rough” has been advanced to include a greater variance of length—some spots six or seven yards off the fairway will be much more difficult than others. Davis has also mandated that the greens not be mowed to as low a level as possible. Longer grass should mean fewer bumps, and in placing additional emphasis on rolling the greens, Pebble’s putting surfaces will still be played at near-frightening speeds.

After watching Zach Johnson toil on the practice green for about 10 minutes Tuesday, I’m more convinced than ever that this year’s U.S. Open champion will hole more than his share of 10- and 15-footers. Four days of clear skies and zero percent chance of rain (10 percent on Saturday) guarantee us firm fairways, so shorter hitters such as Johnson and Jim Furyk have a far better chance than, say, last year at Bethpage. Mega-bomber Dustin Johnson has won back-to-back tournaments at Pebble on the PGA Tour’s dead-of-winter visit, but the tour doesn’t roll the greens in early February, nor is the texture of the grounds even remotely similar to that of mid-June.

Instead of the aerial contest we see at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the competitive balance of this U.S. Open will evolve largely around the ground game. Five or six of the driving alleys, most notably at the par-5 sixth and par-4 ninth, require a shot of viable shape, not only to hit a decent approach, but to keep the ball in play. “I’m probably going to hit just a handful of drivers out there,” says three-time champion Tiger Woods, for whom the longest club in the bag has caused the biggest headaches.

“When I got here last Sunday, No. 6 was into the wind and driver was a perfect club,” Woods adds. “It was just a little 3-wood [Tuesday] and I still had an iron in. The wind has a lot to do with it, but more than anything, these fairways are starting to get really quick.”

All of which takes us back to those tiny greens. “I don’t want to play aggressive off the tee,” says Phil Mickelson, who has downplayed the importance of distance this week. “I want to play aggressive at the pins.”

At an average of 3,300 square feet, Pebble’s greens are about one-third the size of those at many modern venues. Short-side misses will almost certainly lead to bogeys. Those with mediocre short games have little chance of contending—Lee Westwood and Hunter Mahan, two superb ballstrikers who chip poorly, come to mind. Mickelson, Woods and Ernie Els, all terrific around the greens, are likely to factor, but by Sunday evening, a player who best combines accuracy off the tee with the ability to economize strokes close to the hole will hoist the grand prize Sunday night.

Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker—at least two of those three guys will be in the mix entering the final nine.