SAN FRANCISCO — Graeme McDowell needed a wake-up call on Saturday afternoon. Standing on the tee on the par-4 ninth hole, the Ulsterman was sitting pretty at 3-over for the tournament, well within shouting distance of the leaders.
He'd strung together eight straight pars to start his round, but as McDowell noted during his post-round press conference, he was struggling to find a groove with his swing, and with scoring holes ahead, now seemed as good a time as ever to kickstart things with a good drive and birdie before the turn.
McDowell pulled driver from his bag and laid into his ball, watching as it peeled off the club face and took a sharp turn to the right, sailing into the trees. It was without question his worst shot of the day.
At the time it looked like a turning point in his round -- a shot we could all look back on at the close of the tournament and say was the moment when his tournament chances went down the drain. But it was actually quite the opposite.
McDowell took the shot as a blessing in disguise.
"My shot on nine was kind of a wake-up call for me," McDowell said. "I had a big flare in the right trees and made a bit of a Tarzan five. And that kind of woke me up a little bit.
"I needed to slow my swing down and get a good groove and rhythm to come in. I had some good shots coming in."
It's rare that we talk about a bad swing and bogey being the "wake-up," but from that point forward it seemed McDowell found whatever was missing from his game. He went on to bounce back from his only bogey of the day with a birdie on the par-4 10th hole, and then followed it up with another on the par-3 13th, and a statement wedge shot on the 18th hole that landed within a couple feet of the hole for birdie to cap an impressive 3-under 33 on the back-nine.
And just like that, Graeme McDowell went from being a fringe contender to start the week to member of the final group heading into Sunday's final round. We talk all the time about the characteristics needed to win a U.S. Open title; you need patience, humility and the ability to embrace fear.
McDowell's been thriving in all three of those categories this week. He's been killing Olympic Club with pars, while also giving the course's six-hole opening stretch all the respect it deserves.
And then there's his ability to embrace fear. Even though he's a U.S. Open champion, McDowell talked after his round about the angst he felt before he teed off on Saturday, and how talking about his his fear and nerves with his team actually helped him prepare for the challenge ahead.
"I've gone through these emotions all the time," McDowell said. "It's basic stuff. It's basically fear. Fear of going out there and messing it all up. I always remember reading [Bob] Rotella's book when I was a kid, the two fears we all have are the fear of success and the fear of failure. I don't fear success. I only fear failure, really. We all do.
"Tomorrow is not going to be the be all and end all for me. Hopefully I've got a few more years in me. If I can go out tomorrow and not put it up on a pedestal, just try to go out and do any job. If it's good enough, great. If it's not, perhaps I'll drink a cold beer and get over it."
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If you're looking for a quote that pretty much sums up how every player feels deep down inside before a big round, this is the one. But unlike most golfers who push the fear inside and try to ignore it, McDowell's willing to own the fear and use it to his advantage.
He may fear failure, but as past history tells us, he's had enough success at the U.S. Open to feel confident about his chances going into the final round. Even though he's typically done a lot of his best work from a couple shots back in the pack -- he won his 2010 U.S. Open title from three shots back on Sunday -- the way McDowell's played in big-game situations, the thought of him winning from the front seems very possible.
He's one of only two players in the field this week to post two under-par rounds at Olympic Club. Plus, he's managed to hit 28 fairways (T3 in the field) and get around the course with 1.56 putts per hole (T10).
With the Irish crowds cheering him on, McDowell looks at home on the West Coast -- just hours away from where he picked up first major championship. It also doesn't hurt that he's playing like a guy who's in complete control of his game and emotions.
It won't be easy to win his second U.S. Open title on Sunday, what with Jim Furyk and a host of other big names lurking, but if McDowell sticks to his plan, stays patient and pars the course to death, he'll be nearly impossible to beat as the afternoon goes on and the greens continue to firm up.
Make sure you have the Guiness on tap. The way McDowell's playing, it could be flowing on Sunday evening.
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