By John Manley
In a performance that surprised many, Graeme McDowell became the first Irishman to win the U.S. Open with a 1-stroke victory at Pebble Beach on Sunday over France’s Gregory Havret. The Portrush, Co. Antrim native was on virtually nobody’s short list of Open favorites going into the event, save members of the McDowell household.
In claiming the Open trophy, McDowell prevailed in a battle of attrition where steady play that minimized mistakes was rewarded. The only late charges and low scores to be found on Sunday came from players who’d earlier been penalized by the course for their errors and were in no position to make up enough ground to challenge for the title.
McDowell became the third Irishman to win one of golf’s four Major Championships, and the second from Portrush, joining Fred Daly, who won the 1947 British Open. Padraig Harrington, with two British Opens and one PGA Championship in his bag, tied for 22nd place at Pebble, finishing nine strokes behind McDowell, who carded even-par 284 (71-68-71-74).
McDowell grabbed the midway lead after two opening rounds that saw him rewarded for his aggressive play with a raft of birdies, although not entirely negated by the several bogeys that he had to account for. He had five of each on Thursday to card an even-par 71, and he was able to get out early on Friday while the conditions were mild to shoot 68 (six birdies against three bogeys).
Leading the Open at the midpoint wasn’t a new experience for McDowell. He shared that distinction in 2006 at Winged Foot with Phil Mickelson, but soon went the wrong way and became barely an afterthought in an event that is best known for Mickelson’s forays deep into the gallery on Sunday.
This time, McDowell had sole possession of the lead after Friday, a 2-stroke advantage over Dustin Johnson, with whom he was paired on Saturday. McDowell showed up with his game face on and appeared to be streaking into history with birdies at the first two holes to go up by four strokes.
McDowell’s bogey at the third hole, Johnson’s eagle at the fourth and birdie at the sixth soon placed the pair on even terms. Johnson then went up by a stroke after nearly acing the par-3 seventh hole, although McDowell regained the advantage at the ninth with his birdie and Johnson’s bogey.
McDowell didn’t show signs of strain until 16, which he bogeyed, followed by another bogey and a Johnson birdie at 17 that gave his rival a 2-stroke advantage. That was extended to three strokes when Johnson, who has thrived in the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, birdied 18.
After his even-par 71, McDowell was encouraged by his scrambling and was heady enough to play just the course and not Johnson, who he remained paired with on Sunday.
“[I] obviously [have to] stay patient, not go chasing Dustin down,” McDowell said after Saturday’s round. “I’ve got to let him do his thing, not really react to Dustin much.”
PATIENCE WAS A VIRTUE
There turned out to be little need of this as Johnson faltered early on Sunday, carding triple bogey at the second hole and double at the third to cough up the lead and soon become irrelevant. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods’ resurgence stalled on Sunday, as he played the front nine in 3-over-par. Rather, his playing partner, Havret, kept biting at McDowell’s tail, closing to within a shot on the back nine. Ernie Els also put in a charge with three front-nine birdies, but soon unraveled around the turn.
McDowell got his only birdie of the day at the fifth hole, and soon went up by three strokes. Down the backside, Havret became his only real concern. McDowell didn’t help his cause by routinely finding greenside bunkers on the back nine, but he avoided any serious damage, although he carded four bogeys over the final 10 holes.
When Havret missed a 5-foot birdie putt at 18, McDowell’s job became immeasurably easier. All he had to do then was get up and down in par, and the championship was his. He made it onto the green in three and 2-putted from about 20 feet to finish out and avoid a Monday playoff with the Frenchman.
“I really stuck to my game plan, which was stay patient, stay calm, and really put some nice calm swings on it, and not get sucked in by what the rest of the guys were doing,” McDowell said late on Sunday. “I had an opportunity to go for 18 in two, but made the decision not to do that when [Havret] didn’t make four. And it was a nice easy five in the end, which was, thankfully, no drama. I just can’t believe I have Major Championship after my name from now on. It’s a special feeling.
“To win the [U.S. Open] at Pebble Beach, to join the names Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods, me, wow. I’m not quite sure if I belong in that list, but, hey, I’m there now.”
McDowell also allowed how the idea of entering the final round trailing by three shots and going out to shoot 3-over par to win struck him as odd.
“I was surprised because I didn't think the golf course was set up as difficult as it has been, you know,” McDowell said. “I certainly didn't think it was a Sunday at U.S. Open setup. I was expecting to see much more brutal pin positions. To say they had it set up for scoring would be an exaggeration. It was still tough, obviously, but some of the pin positions were quite accessible, especially in the front nine. And I bogeyed 9 and 10, I looked up at the leaderboard and I was surprised to be two ahead, I really was.
“And I was surprised that Gregory Havret was the guy closest to me. No disrespect to Gregory, he's a great player, but when you have Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els obviously there, you're not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you've got to fend off.”
McDowell admitted that the setting aided him in his quest.
“The scenery here at Pebble, it's a great way of taking your mind off what was going on,” McDowell said. “Anytime I felt nervous or felt myself getting ahead of myself, I just had a look around and just took in the scenery and really just tried to use that to bring me back into the present. It's just a special place to play golf.
McDowell first visited Pebble Beach in 2001 with his college mates from Alabama-Birmingham, when they were on the Monterey Peninsula for a tournament at another venue.
“We came here to have a look around,” McDowell said. “We were in awe of the place, and thinking, ‘wow.’ It reminded me of home quite a lot, the coast line and the ocean and just the beauty of it all. The sun doesn't shine quite as much here as it does at home.”
STRADDLING TWO COASTS
With his first professional stateside victory securely in his grasp, McDowell said that he will probably maintain more of a presence on this side of the Atlantic.
“I'm probably going to play a little bit more out here,” McDowell said. “The European Tour is my home, my home Tour, and I'm not going to turn my back on there. I'm going to remain a loyal member of the European Tour. And play my schedule, which is always something I've aimed to do. I think the great thing about golfers in Europe is we play all over the world, and I think we're better players and better people because of that. I'll continue to be a worldwide player.
Naturally, McDowell is now looking forward to taking on St. Andrews in next month’s British Open.
“It's a golf course I know really well,” McDowell said. “It's all about course knowledge and local knowledge. At St. Andrews you've got to know every bump and hump and roll in the greens. There's no doubt I'll take an amazing amount of confidence from this week. To know that I have the ability to get one of these across the line, especially to know that I have the peace of mind to feel as calm and as confident as I did coming down the stretch today.”
Along with the trophy, purse money and satisfaction come several other perks befitting a Major Champion. McDowell will now participate in October’s Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda featuring the year’s four major champions, he has earned a spot in next January’s SBS Championship in Hawaii to which all U.S. PGA Tour victors are invited, and he now stands high enough on the Ryder Cup points list in both applicable categories to probably not have to rely on Colin Montgomerie to name him as a captain’s selection. And no matter how he fares on the golf course over the next several years, his Open title will secure him entrance into just about any event he wishes to partake of.
As for Harrington, his Open was neither spectacular nor nightmarish. He shot three rounds of 73 to go with Saturday’s 74.
Gareth Maybin’s first U.S. Open resulted in a tie for 63rd place. He carded 300 (74-75-76-75). An eagle-3 at 18 on Friday helped him make the cut.
Rory McIlroy, whom many expect to one day join McDowell as a major champion, missed the cut by three strokes. He carded rounds of 75 and 77.