A Painful U.S. Open Sunday for Players and Fans

published June 21, 2010

Every so often, the U.S. Open coughs up a hairball.

It was bound to happen to Pebble Beach eventually.  Even the most celebrated and picturesque American golf course couldn’t keep up its string of marquee names grabbing memorable victories forever.

Sunday was a day of missed opportunities, extreme collapses, shaky thinking and worse execution.  Cary Middlecoff observed long ago that “Nobody wins the Open; it wins you.”  Even so, the final round proved to be one of the most enervating spectacles imaginable, a balloon race through a field of porcupines, a mile run through quicksand.

The contrast between this sorry Sunday and the glories of the past was best demonstrated at the 17th hole, where Nicklaus’s one-iron hit the flag and Watson chipped in from the rough.  Yesterday, there was one birdie all day, and fewer than a dozen golfers even hit the green from the tee.

Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell is a worthy champion, a player who entered the Open in fine form off his win in the Celtic Manor Wales Open two weeks ago.  He was the steadiest player in the field for four days, and in retrospect he won the title with his steely par putts on 7 and 8, those two keeping enough oil in the tank to accommodate the leakage that inevitably followed.

This strange day was encapsulated by Shaun Micheel’s absurd two-hole run:  First he recorded a double-eagle 2 on the 523-yard sixth, then he took a double-bogey five on the 92-yard seventh.

That’s how it went all day for everybody: one step forward, several steps back.  It’s hardly McDowell’s fault that at every point at which drama was possible, his rivals for the day conspired to gag, whiff, hack, sputter, or perform several of these at once.

Dustin Johnson entered the final round as the Next Big Thing, the long-hitting King of the Beach who had won the AT&T at Pebble the last two years.  His three-shot lead over McDowell lasted two holes – holes McDowell parred, by the way.  When Johnson’s approach shot on the par-four second landed in Medusa-esque fescue atop the right-hand bunker, he tried to hack out left-handed, nearly missed the ball with his next attempt from greenside rough, then finally put his lofted chip onto the green.  He played these three shots in about the same time it took to read about them, then missed the short putt to take a triple bogey and give away his lead.  His imprudent drive on the next hole wound up in terra incognita, and he had to go back to the tee while McDowell waited patiently up at the green.  The double bogey sent him on his way to an 82, the highest score for a third-round U. S. Open leader since 1911.

As kind observers averted their eyes from Johnson’s collapse, they realized that he had suddenly brought Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, and Ernie Els into the thick of things.  Els birdied two, four, and six to reach three under and briefly tie for the lead, but he drove over the cliff on ten and then left his third shot short and right in the same hazard for a double bogey.  Whenever it seemed he would get into position to capitalize if the leader stumbled, he stumbled himself.  The same could be said of Mickelson, whose putting would have been perfect if each hole was half a ­cup to the right.  He gave the crowd a thrill when he birdied the first hole and drove the green on the par-four fourth, but he three-putted from fifteen feet for a par that set the pattern for his day: birdie chances squandered on the first nine, par putts missed on the second.

It’s possible to look at Tiger Woods’s weekend as a success; his back-nine charge on Saturday for a 66 brought the full-throated roars back to his galleries.  Sunday, however, he combined errant driving with surprisingly tentative putting, consistently leaving the ball short.  His 75 included six bogeys, three of them in the first six holes; he was falling back while the other leaders were moving forward, then treaded water as they all came back towards him.  The record book will show he finished tied for fourth with Mickelson, but he was never a factor when it mattered most.

The last remaining challenger was France’s Gregory Havret, who got to Pebble Beach through the European qualifier at Walton Heath, surviving a six-man playoff for five spots.  While McDowell’s Euro Tour credentials were significant, Havret lacked even that on his resume.  He came to the Open ranked 391 in the world, 119 on the European Tour; in the last two seasons there he has four top-30 finishes and twenty-two missed cuts.  Yet it was Havret who stayed in contention as the famous names faded.   He was within a shot of the lead after McDowell bogeyed 14 – as did seven of the ten players in the last five groups – and kept making pars until he bunkered his tee shot on 17 for the bogey that dropped him two back.  By the time Hevret faced an eight-foot birdie putt on 18 to reach even par, McDowell had also bogeyed 17 (as had six of the last ten), so he had a chance to tie for the lead and perhaps force the lowest-rated Monday playoff in TV golf history.  But the putt slid by, and McDowell, watching from the center of the fairway, abandoned all thought of going for the green in two.

With even this last bit of drama denied us, McDowell laid up on the par-five and hit a comfortable wedge to twenty feet, from whence he comfortably two-putted for the victory.  The man from Portrush had ended the forty-year European drought in the U.S. Open, and triumphed in a manner long ago envisioned by Rudyard Kipling: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…

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