Out of Nowhere: Little-known Graeme McDowell outlasts the big guns at Pebble Beach

Wednesday June 23rd, 2010
PAR FOR THE COURSE: McDowell made only two birdies over the last 34 holes, but he surged into the lead on Sunday by avoiding the big mistake.
Robert Beck/SI

The driving range on a Sunday afternoon at a U.S. Open is a strangely optimistic place, as the players engage in a kind of collective denial of the horrors that are to come. In the buildup to the final round of our 110th national championship, played last week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Tiger Woods couldn’t help but smile when he received a standing ovation just for arriving on the practice tee. The fans were hoping to recapture the energy of the day before when Woods had reinvented himself with a 66 that propelled him to third place. One stroke back of Tiger was his old foil Ernie Els of South Africa, who was discussing various World Cup developments in between carefree swings. Phil Mickelson was in the mix too,

tied for sixth, a stroke behind Els. No one knows better than Mickelson how brutally unforgiving the Open can be, but in the minutes before his reckoning—a 1:55 tee time—he was his usual jaunty self. Leaving the range Mickelson was asked what a 65 might do for him. “Same thing it did for Arnold,” he crowed, a nod to Palmer’s famous final-round charge to victory at Cherry Hills a half century ago.

Phil, Tiger and Ernie accounted for all of the one-name star power, but the most intriguing range rat was Dustin Johnson, who was effortlessly smashing one perfect drive after another with his vortex-inducing swing. The day before, Johnson, 25, had fired a 66 to build a three-stroke lead. It was the kind of overpowering, game-changing ­performance that immediately drew comparisons with Woods, circa April 1997. Johnson’s friend Steve Flesch, a longtime PGA Tour veteran, offered this by way of text message: “Dustin is probably the most athletic, fearless and supremely talented player on Tour today. He has all the elements to become a dominant player.”

If Johnson was feeling pressure to live up to those kinds of expectations it didn’t show, as between bombs he was yukking it up with his caddie and with his new swing coach, Butch Harmon. “He looks real tight, doesn’t he?” Harmon said, addressing a couple of reporters.

Finding comfort on the driving range is a purely physical act, but the final round of the Open is the ultimate mental test, an 18-hole stress fest designed to push players to the breaking point. However loosey-goosey the protagonists had appeared at the range, they were overmatched once they set foot on a firm and fast Pebble Beach. Woods bogeyed half of his first 12 holes as every part of his game betrayed him. Afterward, golf’s ultimate winner was left with only moral victories. “I felt like I put some pieces together this week,” Woods said. “It’s a long process.”

Making the turn, Mickelson was even par for the tournament—what would ultimately be Graeme McDowell’s winning score—but he played the back nine in a three-over 39, failing to make a birdie in the final 17 holes. Five times an Open runner-up, Mickelson was forced to find gallows humor in his fourth-place tie: “I’m glad it wasn’t a second.” Els was tied for the lead standing on the 7th tee, but he dumped two shots in the hazard at the 10th hole en route to a double bogey and then staggered home with three more bogeys.

These were bruising missed opportunities for players who each, for very personal reasons, craved this Open, but Johnson’s demise easily came with the most pathos. After a perfect drive on the par-4 2nd hole his fanned approach shot hung up in the long fescue that framed a greenside bunker. With no stance he was forced to turn his wedge upside down and gouge the ball out lefthanded. He followed with a near whiff from the rough and a blown four-footer, ­taking a stunning triple bogey that threw the final round into disarray. Arriving on the tee of the sharply doglegged, par-4 3rd hole, the hyperaggressive Johnson instinctively pulled his driver out of the bag. He yanked his tee shot way left and the ball was lost in a hazard, leading to a double bogey. Recklessly, Johnson then tried to drive the par-4 4th hole and promptly dumped his ball into Stillwater Cove. In four holes he had hit for the cycle: par, triple bogey, double bogey, bogey. Johnson’s coronation would have to wait, and he spent the next 14 holes in a glassy-eyed daze, ultimately signing for an 82 that was the worst final round by a 54-hole U.S. Open leader since Fred McCloud’s 83 in 1911.

An hour after the death march had finally, mercifully, ended, Johnson was still trying to make sense of what had befallen him. “It’s hard to describe the feeling,” he said in his soft South Carolina drawl. “My head was spinning a little, for sure. You’re trying to forget about what’s just happened and keep going, but it’s hard to do. My approach shot on number 2, it could’ve easily fallen back into the bunker. If it does, it’s a totally different golf tournament.” He paused, searching for answers. “It was just a crazy, crazy day out there. And not just for me.”


At a tournament that is destined to be remembered for who lost it, the winner turned out to be an amiable lad from Northern Ireland who made only one birdie on Sunday—at the 5th—and played the final 10 holes in four over par but still stumbled across the finish line a stroke ahead of Gregory Havret of France, the 391st-ranked player in the world, who bogeyed three of the final 11 holes, naturally. McDowell, 30, is the first European to take the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and afterward he sounded as if he could hardly believe his good fortune. “I bogeyed 9 and 10, I looked up at the leader board and I was surprised to be two ahead, I really was,” McDowell said. “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 there, you’re not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you’ve got to fend off.”

McDowell’s bluntness is only one of his winning traits. He grew up in the shadow of famed Royal Portrush Golf Club, but his family did not have the means to be members. Instead Graeme and his two brothers played at Rathmore, what their father, Kenny, describes as a “workingman’s club.” After studying engineering and playing a little golf for Queens College in Belfast, McDowell somehow came to the attention of the coaches at Alabama-Birmingham. By his third season there, 2002, McDowell was national player of the year. He turned pro that summer and won his sixth start on the European tour, the Scandinavian Masters, much to the delight of his mother, Marian. “He always told her he was going to buy her a new house with his first check, and he did,” says Kenny.

McDowell matured into one of Europe’s most reliable ball strikers, and an emphasis on upgrading his short game led to a breakthrough year in 2008, when he won the Scottish Open and a big-money event in South Korea and then displayed a killer instinct in his first Ryder Cup. Again he was happy to share his good fortune. “He retired me the week he won the Scottish Open,” says Kenny, a former computer technician at a middle school. “He said he wanted to have me out on tour with him more. We’ve had a great time seeing the world together.”

McDowell roared into Pebble Beach fresh from another victory, in Wales, but his first-round 71, which left him two strokes off the lead, was little noticed as Woods made his long-awaited return to Pebble Beach. At the 2000 U.S. Open he had smashed numerous records en route to a 15-stroke victory. Those four days a decade ago remain the most dominant golf of Woods’s career, so this visit to Pebble Beach was a chance to assess just how far he has fallen. In the run-up to the Open, Woods had repeatedly downplayed comparisons, but once he arrived at Pebble he appeared flummoxed trying to live up to his own impossible standards. He did a slow boil throughout a torturous, birdieless 74 on Thursday. (He had opened in 2000 with a bogeyless 65.) Afterward, while awaiting a TV interview, a frustrated Woods mumbled under his breath, “mother------.” More out of character was his moaning about the bumpiness of the greens. Jack Nicklaus used to say that he loved to hear other players whining about the conditions at a major championship because he knew they were already beaten mentally.

Woods played the next morning on greens that McDowell, in the same early wave, described as “very pure,” so Tiger was out of excuses for a ragtag 72 that left him in 25th place, seven back of the Ulsterman, who shot a 68. (Ten years ago Woods’s 69 propelled him six strokes ahead at the midway point.) In the ensuing edition of the Monterey Herald, woods posts first birdie was the headline, because it was indeed newsworthy.

Typical of his subtle mind games between the world’s two best players, Mickelson went out of his way to praise the greens, saying that his maddening first-round 75, during which he hit two balls into the Pacific and also failed to make a birdie, was the result of poor putting. But Mickelson is as unpredictable as the Pebble weather, and he responded on Friday with a flawless 66 to surge into a tie for second, two strokes behind McDowell. “Certainly it was the best I’ve ever seen him play,” said playing partner Padraig Harrington. “It was as easy a 66 as you’ll ever see.”

Phil being Phil, his third round featured three balls dumped into the oceanside hazard and he needed what he called various “salty” up-and-downs to salvage a 73. He reluctantly ceded the spotlight to Woods, who had begun his round with soft bogeys on the 2nd and 3rd holes to free-fall to six over par. The instant verdict—in the pressroom, on Twitter and elsewhere—was that his tournament was over. But then the damnedest thing happened: Tiger Woods turned into Tiger Woods. Postscandal, his golf has been meek and unsteady and he has often had mopey body language and a faraway look in his eyes. Three birdies in a row beginning on the 4th hole changed all that. Woods’s fist pumps became more demonstrative, and in turn the crowd throatier. On the par-4 13th hole Tiger did a familiar cocky twirl of his club even before his ball almost hit the flagstick. After that birdie putt dropped, the whole course seemed to tilt in his direction. A big-breaking birdie putt on 16 brought the biggest fist pump of 2010. At the par-5 18th, from 260 yards out, he carved a three-wood around a tree, over the ocean and onto the green, the most macho shot Woods has hit this season.

And yet Johnson matched Woods’s 66 blow for blow. The signature moment was when Johnson made eagle by driving the uphill 290-yard par-4 4th hole—with a three-iron. Johnson took a two-stroke lead to the 18th tee and promptly whipped out his driver, leading to an on-air scolding by NBC’s Johnny Miller, who favored a more conservative play on the watery par-5. As it turned out, Johnson blasted his drive well past the lurking trees and bunkers down the right side and had only a six-iron in, which he deftly placed on the left side of the green, leading to one last birdie. “Ol’ Johnny hit it about 210 off the tee in his prime,” woofed Allen Terrell, Johnson’s coach at Coastal Carolina. “He simply doesn’t understand the game Dustin is playing.”

But it was Johnson’s pedal-to-the-metal style that led to his implosion on Sunday. McDowell seized control of the tournament by opening with seven pars and a birdie and effectively playing prevent defense the rest of the way. Unlike previous Opens at Pebble there was no defining moment or iconic shot, but McDowell was making no apologies for being the last man standing. His father claims the best whiskey in the world is made outside of Portrush, in the village of Bushmills; Graeme is more of a Guinness man. Either way, the new U.S. Open champ said on Sunday evening, “There might be a few beverages consumed from this trophy this week. Goodness knows when I’m going to sober up. I can’t make any promises there.”

After such a wild, demoralizing final round, the men McDowell beat at Pebble Beach will probably be driven to drink too.

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