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True U.S. Open winner was the course itself

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Mark Purdy
June 21, 2010
— Graeme McDowell sat there, staring at the United States Open championship trophy. The trophy stared back at him. McDowell then uttered a traditional expression from his native Northern Ireland.

“I need to get a beer in my hand,” he said.


A few minutes earlier, he had cradled the silver cup in his hands, with a near-baffled expression.


“They gave me this thing,” McDowell said. “I couldn’t believe it.”


He was not the only nonbeliever. On a Sunday afternoon when the leader board of our country’s national golf championship was stacked with the sport’s current ruling elite — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els — there was much surprise when an underdog from across the pond calmly strode onto the premises. And he beat them all. By just one stroke. But Graeme McDowell beat them all.


In one sense, however, McDowell wasn’t the true champion. As the huge crowd departed the premises, a stiff gale blew across the rocky point out there at the seventh green. And you could swear that the breeze sounded like laughter.


Yes, the true winner Sunday was the Pebble Beach Golf Links, which kept its reputation solid with another fine performance. The old coot, built in 1919, may have been tweaked and stretched out and dressed up in armor. But it held up spectacularly. McDowell won his trophy shooting even par for the tournament and three over par on Sunday, against a rugged setup that was nearly impossible to solve over four rounds.


“So what’s new at Pebble Beach?” asked Tom Watson, who won the 1982 U.S. Open here and at age 60 played his final round in the event Sunday. “I’m not surprised to see these scores at all. This golf course is playing fast and fiery, but it’s not playing unfair. “& You’re playing a very, very difficult golf course. Can you handle it? It’s what we’re out here for. It’s what we’re out here to play golf for, is to play in championships such as the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.”


Well said. Among the major championships, the United States Open is always the major championship that is survived, not won. The tournament is not administered by the PGA Tour but by the United States Golf Association (USGA), which believes that winning a national title should be no cakewalk.


The organization’s course setup guru, Mike Davis, is happy to follow instructions. He allows the fairways and greens to dry out within an ounce of the grass’ life. He keeps the fairways wide enough to hit, but then puts the flags in spots where the best men must hit their shots the best.


Anybody got a problem with that? Isn’t that the point? Nobody blinks twice when football teams must try to win in winter weather in Green Bay. Or when a baseball team has to deal with that preposterous left-field wall at Fenway Park. Or when a visiting team at Staples Center is heckled by Jack Nicholson from courtside. No one calls those things unfair. They’re just the cost of doing business in the tough racket of sports.


Sunday’s festivities began even quicker than usual when Dustin Johnson, the leader after Saturday’s third round, performed the golfing equivalent of a face plant. Johnson was ahead of the field by three strokes when he teed off. After five holes, he was four strokes behind McDowell. After that, McDowell mostly held service and held off his closest chaser, Gregory Havret of France. Johnson eventually wound up shooting an 82 and vanished into the Del Monte Forest without comment.


As for all that troika of Woods and Mickelson and Els . . . well, none of them really made a move. But none seemed to blame anyone but themselves.


“I was even par after nine holes,” Mickelson noted, “so if I had just played the back nine in par, I would have been right there with Graeme at the end.”


“Mike set up the golf course really well,” Woods said, “where you could be very aggressive. “& He’s given more guys the chance to win the golf tournament. It’s more open now. With the graduated rough, being firm and fast like this, it brings a lot more players into play who have a chance to win.”


If that was an indirect slap at McDowell, he took it with cheery aplomb, remarking that he wasn’t certain his name did belong alongside the other Pebble Beach winners of the Open—Jack Nicklaus, Watson, Tom Kite and Woods.


Yet for the record, McDowell is hardly an impostor. He left his hometown of Portrush as a teenager to play college golf in America and was named the year’s most outstanding collegiate golfer in 2002 as a competitor for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. McDowell is also a former winner of the Scandinavian Masters, the Scottish Open and the Wales Open.


As for Woods, he claims that his game is showing gradual progress after his long layoff related to marital strife. But you could still say that Sunday was another glorious day for Jack Nicklaus. Woods is chasing Nicklaus for the record of most major championship victories and remains stuck at 14, four behind Nicklaus. Also, Woods has now gone eight straight majors without a victory, his longest slump in that department since 2003-04.


McDowell, a self-effacing sort, was jokingly not ruling out catching Nicklaus himself.


“When I sober up,” McDowell said, “I’ll certainly be thinking about winning more of these things.”


The Open returns to Pebble in 2019. Don’t expect the old coot to be any kinder by then.



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