McDowell answers call as A-listers stumble

Brian Murphy
Yahoo! Sports

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – On the 18th green at Pebble Beach, on the final day of the 2010 U.S. Open, Graeme McDowell bear-hugged his father, Ken, squeezing him tight and exulting. Ken cried a little in joy. They had the look of two men who could not believe what they had seen, who could not believe what had just happened.

Just yards away, their story gained clarity.

There stood the enormous hand-operated leader board at the U.S. Open, telling historic golf tales in black and red digits, telling the truth about McDowell. The 30-year-old, a European Ryder Cup man, five-time winner in Europe and top-50 player in the world, was America's new national champion.

True enough, and well done, Graeme, as they would say in his hometown of Portrush. Pints of Guinness, McDowell would say, would flow like water in celebration at his home club.

But that scoreboard still stood, hovering over the celebration, telling stubborn truths:

ELS 73 68 72 73.

MICKELSON 75 66 73 73.

WOODS 74 72 66 75.

Graeme McDowell won his first major championship, and he will live forever in golf history, but the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach may be remembered more for the three biggest names in golf stalling when history called.

The Open changed when third-round leader Dustin Johnson crumbled in painful, public fashion, making triple-bogey on No. 2 and double-bogey on No. 3 en route to a scarring 82. The barn door was open, and the USGA's prize trophy was anybody's.

Only McDowell answered the call.

Tiger Woods, poised to erase seven months of public humiliation after his fall from grace, shot 75. Phil Mickelson, poised to add a 5th major and a first U.S. Open, shot 73. And Ernie Els, especially, within one or two shots of the lead nearly all day, shot 73.

Els finished two shots back; Tiger and Phil three shots back. Sorry, gents. Not happening.

Pebble Beach's U.S. Opens, so famous their blue-blood lineage of champions – Nicklaus, Watson, Kite, Woods – watched three blue-bloods run their dreams into a ditch.

How about that, Graeme McDowell?

"To join that list of names, I can't believe I'm standing here," said McDowell, who shot a final-round 74. "Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods …"

McDowell, by all accounts a self-effacing and likable type, paused for effect.

"Me," he added, with a small laugh.

"I'm not quite sure I belong on that list, but hey, here I am."

McDowell's modesty belies his strong resume. Much like '09 champ Lucas Glover, or '07 champ Angel Cabrera, or '06 champ Geoff Ogilvy, McDowell is one of those just-below-Tiger-Phil-Ernie names in golf. He's always in major championship fields, always one of those names for whom the true golf fan says: "Sure. He could win a major. I could see that."

Yet, Ken McDowell, eyes still moist with happy tears by the 18th green, couldn't fathom his son's good fortune.

"You don't think with those names up there," he said, gesturing to the Big Three's line scores, "that he'd win."

And from McDowell's trusty caddie, Ken Comboy: "With that leader board, and those names – Woods, Mickelson, Els – you'd think one of them would produce. They never did."

Perhaps most startling was the name of the only player who challenged McDowell to the 72nd hole. Or didn't you have France's Gregory Havret in your U.S. Open pool?

That's right. McDowell and Havret, jousting for the big check at Pebble.

The lineage of Jack-Tom-Tiger winning at Pebble didn't exactly mesh with the notion of a European Tour event breaking out on the back nine of America's championship. America wanted red-white-and-blue greatness, and instead was getting a Sunday morning Golf Channel leader board from the Madrid Masters.

Havret, a nearly anonymous entrant ranked 391st in the world golf ranking, needed only to birdie 18 to perhaps force a Monday playoff, but could not get up-and-down from a greenside bunker.

That sound you heard was NBC and the USGA choking on their brie at the thought of a McDowell-Havret Monday playoff.

When McDowell stumbled on the brutal, wind-whipped 9th and 10th holes, making bogeys, he decided to peek at the leader board. He saw he had a two-shot lead – over Havret.

"I was surprised to be two ahead," McDowell said, "and I was surprised Havret was the guy closest to me. When Tiger, Phil and Ernie are on the leader board, you're not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy to fend off."

True to the U.S. Open's calling, though, Havret's 1-over cumulative score was one shot too many. McDowell's smart play of laying up on 18, wedging to 20 feet and two-putting for par, meant he shot level par for 72 holes – the only man in the field to do so.

So the big boys lick their wounds. Mickelson will think of having an eagle putt on No. 4 – and making par. Els will think of a short putt for birdie on No. 15 – and making par. Tiger will think of many things, including six bogeys – and the humiliation of someone paying money to rent a bi-plane to fly a banner that read "Tiger, are you my daddy?"as he played No. 3.

And the golf world is left with Graeme McDowell as a major champion, calling to mind names like Trevor Immelman ('08 Masters), Stewart Cink ('09 British) and Y.E. Yang ('09 PGA), men who are supremely talented and world-class and earn enough points, wins and money to qualify for these major championship fields.

They aren't A-listers, but they are the best that week – and that is the fickle and delightful nature of golf's rhythms.

So we are left to salute McDowell and his story, remembering that he was a brilliant college player at Alabama-Birmingham, ranked No. 1 in the country. We learn that he always felt a U.S. Open suited his game best, because he drives it straight and can putt it well. We learn that his win at Wales on the European Tour two weeks ago – featuring a 64-63 weekend – made him feel like his game was ready to take off.

We learn that Pebble Beach's coastline and links did, indeed, remind him of home, and that when things got tense out there, he would gaze off at the water, losing himself in the scenery of this spectacular place.

We learn things from his father, like the fact that the young McDowell videotaped Steve Elkington's swing and watched it over and over to try and replicate it. We learn that his dad says his son has no nerves, is an "ice man" on the golf course, and that McDowell beat his friends from Ulster, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, to the major championship dance, but that they're all "great mates," according to Ken.

We learn that the new U.S. Open champion said his enjoyment of the moment would heighten as soon as he had an ice-cold beer.

"It'll be some party for about three months," he said. "I'll probably sober up pre-Ryder Cup."

So no, the A-listers don't always give you their A-list story. Sometimes we hear the story of Graeme McDowell who went with his dad for a cup of coffee on Sunday morning in downtown Monterey and talked about life, and Graeme's days as a youth golfer.

By 6:15 p.m., they were sharing that hug, and it was an undeniably nice moment.

"Happy Father's Day," the son said.

"You're something, kid," the dad said.

It's true. He is something. He's a U.S. Open champ. You could look it up. It's right there on the leader board.

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