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.
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.