Graeme McDowell didn't win the Pebble Beach U.S. Open, he survived it

Graeme McDowell didn’t win the Pebble Beach U.S. Open, he survived it

Graeme McDowell two-putted from 30 feet on 18 to clinch the win.
Fred Vuich/SI

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — What if they held a U.S. Open and everybody lost?

That’s what happened Sunday. Pebble Beach Golf Links was about the only entity to survive the Open’s final round with its dignity and reputation intact. As players foundered with mis-hit drives, misjudged approaches and misread putts, Pebble Beach stepped up to the podium and joined the big boys, Oakmont and Winged Foot, as America’s toughest championship sites.

The course’s leading survivor, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, was crowned the Open champion. He clinched his first title in the United States by two-putting for par from 30 feet on Pebble Beach’s famed 18th hole. McDowell then leaned back and looked skyward — in disbelief or relief, take your pick. He’d had enough of Pebble Beach, like everyone else.

“I really tried to just go out there and par the place to death today,” McDowell said after he’d picked up his trophy, only half-joking.

How tough was Pebble Beach on Sunday? This tough:

— McDowell began the final round three shots behind Dustin Johnson, shot a three-over-par 74 and still won. His 74 was the highest closing round by an Open winner since Andy North in 1985 at Oakland Hills. North also won with a closing 74 in 1978 at Cherry Hills.

— If the Open is won and lost on the back nine on Sunday, check out these scores: McDowell 39; Gregory Havret 38; Ernie Els 40; Phil Mickelson 39; Tiger Woods 37. That’s a YMCA after-work league, not a major championship. And Johnson? He went up in smoke on the front nine with 42, so his back-nine total didn’t really matter.

— On the Cliffs of Doom — Nos. 8, 9 and 10 — the last three pairings Sunday went a combined 11 over par.

— Mickelson made a birdie on the opening hole Sunday. He never saw another all day.

— McDowell made only two birdies in his final 34 holes, none of them after the fifth hole Sunday.

This U.S. Open was a classic survival test, a real throwback. The course played difficult on Sunday because the tiny greens were firm and fast, and there was just enough wind to wreak havoc with club selection.

McDowell kept his sense of humor about Sunday’s ordeal. “To win at Pebble Beach and the names of the champions here are Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods … and me.” McDowell paused to wait for the laughter to die down. “I’m not sure I belong on that list, but hey, I’m there now.”

He first visited Pebble Beach while traveling with the University of Alabama-Birmingham golf team for a tournament. The team stopped by just to look around at the course, and it made a lasting impression on McDowell.

“I was just in awe,” McDowell said. “It reminded me a little bit of home. It’s a special feeling to win here.”

But Sunday wasn’t about how McDowell won the Open. It was about how everyone else lost it.

Let’s start with Johnson, who took a three-shot edge into the final round. Early in the day, there was talk, mainly on NBC, about him being the game’s next great player. However, Johnson had never been in contention on Sunday in a major and his two wins at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am were odd. He won one via rainout, and the other by shooting a stumbling 74 in the final round, which proved to be just good enough. On Sunday, Johnson went down in flames quickly and embarrassingly, due to physical and mental errors.

Known for his “stupid-long” drives, as Woods called them, Johnson bombed one at the second hole, a par 5 that the USGA turned into a par 4 for the week. He had a short-iron into the green and inexplicably came up way short, burying his ball in deep grass on the edge of the bunker. The stance was so bad, he tried to hit it left-handed with the clubhead turned upside down. Big mistake. He moved it six feet in the rough. Then Johnson tried to play a flop shot. It flopped, all right — but only about three feet. This is the moment when a golfer’s composure meter drops below zero. He chipped on, missed the putt and took a triple-bogey 7.

Then he made a mental error. Clearly upset, it appeared Johnson tried to drive the green or at least get close at the 404-yard third hole by cutting the corner over the trees. Bad idea, poor execution. He pull-hooked that drive somewhere into a jungle of trees and brush near the 16th green. His ball was found 19 seconds after his five-minute search time ended, and he had to declare the ball lost and return to the tee.

Then Johnson made another error, switching to a hybrid for his tee shot and blowing that through the fairway into a bunker. That turned into a double. When Johnson blocked his tee shot at the fourth hole way right, over the cliffs, and made another bogey, he was finished as a factor in the Open.

Tiger Woods looked like the man to beat after his stellar 66 Saturday, but on Sunday he played like a beaten man. Woods three-putted the opening hole and things didn’t improve after that. He snipe-hooked a 3-wood into the trees at No. 3, but, unlike Johnson, he got lucky and had a gap to play through. Somehow, he rolled in a 12-foot putt to save par. Not bad.

But at the fourth, Woods tried to lay up with an iron off the tee and yanked it into a fairway bunker. It was a bad swing and proved that, whatever Tiger had the day before, he didn’t have it this day. He birdied the seventh hole, then played the next five holes in three over and all but ended his chances.

Mickelson clung to the edge of contention almost to the bitter end, but he lost his momentum when he pounded a tee shot onto the par-4 fourth green, then three-putted for par. He never got anything going after that. Mickelson managed to crack a small joke afterward. “At least I didn’t finish second again,” he said. Mickelson has a record five runner-up finishes at the Open, but this time he tied for fourth with Woods.

Els was the player who was probably the most disappointed. His short putting, which had looked a lot better in two early season wins at Doral and Bay Hill, let him down Sunday. He shared the lead after a birdie at the sixth hole, but that wasn’t the confidence-builder it could’ve been. Els had a 10-footer for eagle on the hole and left it short, in the jaws. Twice, Els hit shots over the hazard line on the 10th hole and made a costly double. He hit it close at 13 but missed a birdie putt, and at 14 he spun his approach shot off the green and took perhaps the critical bogey of the day. You can’t win the Open shooting 40 on the back nine.

Havret, the Frenchman who is little-known in the U.S., played the best golf of any of the contenders, shooting a one-over 72. However, he didn’t birdie any of the par 5s on the back and his bogey at 17, which briefly dropped him two shots behind McDowell, was the difference. Under pressure, he played the 18th fairly well and was in the greenside bunker in two. His 10-footer for birdie and a tie for the Open lead was barely off his putterface before he started walking. He did well to hole the three-foot comebacker for par to force McDowell, who also bogeyed 17, to par the 18th for the win.

“I know I gave myself a chance,” a tearful Havret said as he came off the final green. “It is a shame.”

McDowell played the final hole like a pro. With Havret just one stroke back, McDowell hit driver off the tee, forced to play like he’d need birdie to win. Once Havret holed out, McDowell knew all he needed was a par. So he laid up with a short-iron, hit another 30 feet past the pin and lagged his birdie putt close enough to tap in for the victory.

McDowell said he’d always thought the U.S. Open was his best chance to win a major because driving accuracy, not driving distance, is his strength. But an hour after he finished, as he talked with reporters about his win, McDowell was still having trouble absorbing just what he’d done.

“I can’t believe I’m going to have ‘major champion’ after my name,” he said. “It’s a pretty surreal feeling.”

McDowell shot a glance to his left at the U.S. Open trophy, sitting on the table a few feet from him, and smiled. “I don’t think I’ve put this thing down since they gave it to me.”

On second thought, maybe somebody did win this Open after all.