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Not just a two-man show

Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell will tee off Sunday with a two-shot lead and plenty of U.S. Open experience. But, says Mike McAllister, challengers from Ernie Els to Jason Dufner could make things very interesting.

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Not just a two-man show
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Not just a two-man show

SAN FRANCISCO -- As the native American playing in the final group at his national championship, Jim Furyk will enjoy plenty of support Sunday at The Olympic Club. But his playing partner, Northern Ireland's immensely likeable Graeme McDowell, will have his own rowdy cheering section.

His fans' comments will likely include some reference to Guinness or pints or whatever other, ahem, fun-loving stereotype generally associated with the Irish. Certainly that's what G-Mac has been hearing for his first three tours around the Lake Course this week.

"I don't know what's going on out there," McDowell said with the hint of a sly smile. "Kind of under some illusion I like a cold beer."

What he'd really like is another U.S. Open trophy to bookend the one he claimed two years ago down the road at Pebble Beach. Of course, Furyk would like another one, too, having won his nine years ago at Olympia Fields.

"Seems like it was 15 years ago," Furyk said.

The two will start Sunday with the early advantage, tied for the lead and two strokes clear of their closest competitor, Fredrik Jacobson. After McDowell's 2-under 68 and Furyk's even-par 70 on Saturday, they're the only two players left under par, each 1 under for the tournament.

You might think this is a two-man showdown between players who seem made to win U.S. Opens and won't let the rest of the field back into the mix, especially on a course that hasn't exactly yielded many birdies this week. That it's down to the guy with the Northern California mojo vs. the guy with the Olympia/Olympic mojo.

Furyk, after all, is one of the PGA TOUR's top closers; in the last 17 times he's entered the final round with at least a share of the lead, he's won 10 times and was the runner-up the other seven.

Playing with Tiger Woods in the final group Saturday, Furyk was five strokes better and looked much more comfortable, never panicking after getting off to a slow start.

McDowell, meanwhile, is learning to close. Two years ago at Pebble Beach, he led after the second round, struggled with the pressure on Saturday, and was relieved that Dustin Johnson emerged as the 54-hole leader. Johnson self-destructed early while McDowell came from behind for the win.

Even after that, after clinching the 2010 Ryder Cup with a match win over Hunter Mahan, after staring down Woods at the Chevron World Challenge later that year, McDowell is still dealing with his mental approach. He woke up Saturday feeling much like he did two years ago, nervous and anxious and fearing failure.

But a chat with caddie Ken Comboy and the rest of his entourage put him in the right frame of mind. McDowell opened with eight straight pars and played 3-under bogey-free golf after his only stumble.

"I was happy that I got myself emotionally in the right place today," he said. "Probably for the first time this week, actually enjoyed the round of golf. It was quite nice out there."

Others lurk, though. Neither Furyk nor McDowell is under the illusion that the best score from their twosome will emerge as the winner Sunday. Not with the kind of credentials held by some of the contenders.

Ernie Els, a two-time U.S. Open winner, is three shots back. He's tied for the fewest putts of any player in the field this week and feels like he's back in major championship form, 15 years after his last U.S. Open win.

"For some reason, I'm patient again this week -- and that's been kind of my virtue in major championship golf," Els said.

Lee Westwood is also three shots back. Arguably the best -- and perhaps less arguably, the most established -- player without a major title, Westwood continues to put himself in breakthrough position. He hasn't delivered yet, but why not on Sunday?

"The main thing is just to go out there and believe that I'm good enough," Westwood said. "I must be. I keep getting myself in contention often enough."

There's Jason Dufner, the hottest player on TOUR in recent weeks with two wins in his last three starts. Dufner is four shots off the lead, in a six-man pack that also includes, gulp, 17-year-old Beau Hossler. The precocious youngster has gone from wanting to be low amateur to wanting to make history as the youngest player to win the U.S. Open.

There's Retief Goosen, another two-time U.S. Open winner, just five shots back. "You never know," Goosen said about his chances.

Goosen is in a pack at 4 over that also includes Martin Kaymer, Matt Kuchar and Woods. Despite a round that started badly (four bogeys in his first eight holes) and finished nearly as worse (two more in last three), Woods isn't about to give up the fight. With seven twosomes between him and the lead group, Woods hopes to make some early noise and post a number.

"I'm definitely still in the ballgame," he said. "I'm only five back and that's certainly doable on this golf course."

McDowell agreed. He considers anybody at 4 over or better as a threat. Although there are not super-low scores out there, anybody in red numbers can make a big move. Thirteen players shot sub-par rounds on Saturday; 10 of those players are in the final eight groups going into Sunday.

"There's a fine line in this golf course between 67, 68 and 75, 76," McDowell said. "... Myself and Jimmy are tied up, but there's a lot of guys who can still win this tournament."

But at the end, it will be the golf course itself -- the weather conditions and the USGA's set-up -- that may very well dictate who will contend and who will fall back.

If it's super-tough, if the wind blows and the pins are tricky, then it will mean few birdies and a higher winning score. As Webb Simpson (in the group at 3 over) said Saturday, "If it gets any more firm, I think it could get a little silly." Or as Furyk said, "The golf course will take its effect on a bunch of people."

If the wind is a non-factor like it was Saturday, then perhaps a few significant red numbers will emerge from those players with later tee times. Maybe a player will shoot his way to a U.S. Open title, not simply survive one.

No matter what, the winner will celebrate a well-earned victory at a demanding test of golf.

McDowell put it in perspective. He said if things go well for him Sunday, he would have a couple of cold pints of Guinness.

"And if things don't go well," he added, "probably do the same thing."

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