When the field tees off in the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. on Thursday, a year will have past since Graeme McDowell scaled the heights at Pebble Beach. And what a year it has been, with Ryder Cup heroism and the mano a mano combat with Tiger Woods last December.
Lately, there have been the ebbs - the Sunday debacle at The Players Championship, followed by the Saturday debacle at the Celtic Manor Resort in Wales. Despite the pratfalls, McDowell has proclaimed his game to be in good shape and he is eager to defend his title.
Rory McIlroy's 2011 has similarly been defined not by hits but by misses, beginning with a blowout loss at the Accenture Match Play Championship in February. That occurred in relative obscurity, but the whole world was watching when he fell apart on the back nine at Augusta National on Sunday in April. A week later, he lost another lead in Malaysia. And then he missed the cut at Quail Hollow, where he'd won the previous year.
Still, McIlroy picks himself up, dusts himself off and puts himself in the mix nearly every time.
So, the Open will provide both Ulstermen with a chance for redemption on a grand scale in the first Tigerless Open since 1994. Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry complete the Irish contingent.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Lowry brings the best form of the foursome. Before missing the cut in his last tournament in Wales, he rang up four consecutive top 15 finishes in Europe and topped that off by advancing through a U.S. Open qualifier at Walton Heath in England to claim a spot in Bethesda.
Harrington has had a middling 2011, occasionally gracing the top rung of the leaderboard before vanishing almost as quickly as he arrived.
Lowry will be among the first to tee off on Thursday, as his trio has a 7 am start time at the first tee. He will be joined by Chez Reavie and Korea's Daehyun Kim. The same trio goes out at 12:40 pm on Friday.
McIlroy has been slotted in a trio that only the most whimsically sadistic of minds could have conjured up; a loser's combine, if you will, of McIlroy, Dustin Johnson (who famously cratered in both last year's U.S. Open and PGA Championship) and Phil Mickelson, who will always be known as much for his Winged Foot follies as his triumphs.
The lads leave from the 10th tee at 1:35 pm on Thursday, and return to the first tee at 7:55 am on Friday.
McDowell will have the pleasure of the company of British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein. They're slated for action off the first tee at 7:55 am on Thursday and off the 10th tee at 1:35 pm on Friday.
Harrington's quest for a fourth major begins at 7:44 am on Thursday at the 10th tee alongside Angel Cabrera and Stewart Cink. They'll resume on Friday off the first tee at 1:24 pm.
The benefit of making the cut, while not contending for the lead, is the ability to try some things without having to worry about your score. Such was Harrington's lot in the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn., where he earned a share of 52nd place.
At 2-over-par 282 (70-72-72-68), Harrington was 15 strokes off the low number. Closing birdies at 16 and 18 on Sunday sent him on his way to Congressional on a positive note.
Seamus Power made good use of his entrée into the Rex Hospital Open at TPC Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh, N.C. He worked out a share of 50th place at 3-under-par 281 (69-69-71-72).
A double bogey-bogey sequence at the seventh and eighth holes on Sunday kept the East Tennessee State alum by way of Waterford from a higher finish. In fact, the par-4 seventh hole proved nettlesome to Power, who carded bogeys there on both Friday and Saturday.
Kyle Thompson's 270 stood up for the victory.
Bogeys weren't really the problem for Mark McNulty in the Greater Hickory Classic at Rock Barn in Conover, N.C. After all, he only took one step backward, and that wasn't until Sunday's 17th hole. Rather, birdies, and many of them, were the ticket to victory and McNulty just didn't have enough of them to threaten low scorers Mark Wiebe and James Mason (Wiebe won the playoff on the first extra hole).
McNulty strung three consecutive birdies together, beginning at the sixth hole on Friday. He added a closing birdie at 18 to finish with 68. An opening birdie at the first hole on Saturday preceded a dry spell that ended at 13 with the first of three straight birdies. Another birdie at 18 gave him 67 for the day. Another 67 on Sunday added up to 202 for the event, which was good for a share of 15th place, five strokes off Wiebe and Mason.
The Irish wielded a short hand in the Italian Open at Royal Park I Roveri in Turin, with Darren Clarke's joint-46th place finish the best they could muster.
Saturday's third round hindered Clarke's upward mobility. Whereas the front side was problematic and the back side a breeze over the first 36 holes, that was reversed when Clarke carded three bogeys coming in on Saturday; he posted six birdies on the same terrain the day before. At 8-under-par 280 (71-66-75-68) for the event, he left a gap of 13 strokes between himself and medalist Robert Rock.