PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – One of golf’s strongest cliches is the one about the U.S. Open winner.
He’s the guy who hid in the caves until the storm passed. He’s the one who came out from the bomb shelter. He doesn’t win the Open, it wins him.
Cliches, usually, are true.
Graeme McDowell, 30, from Northern Ireland, schooled by Alabama-Birmingham and living on the fringe of Europe’s golden age, wobbled while he walked Pebble Beach’s final 10 holes but he never fell off a cliff.
Because nearly everyone else did, he was able to win the Open on Sunday with a 3-over-par 74 that left him gasping at even par.
“I always thought the U.S. Open was my best chance in a major,” McDowell said. “And I didn’t think it was set up like an Open Sunday. You could make birdies out there. I’m surprised I was able to shoot what I shot and win.”
McDowell bogeyed the ninth, 10th, 14th and 17th, but 2-putted the par-5 18th, from 18 feet, to hold off France’s Gregory Havret.
Ernie Els, putting miserably in pursuit of his third Open title, shot 73 and was 2-over.
The fourth-place finishers were Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, and both would lament the chances they blew on the comparatively easy front nine. Woods shot 75, Mickelson 73.
Those five leaders combined to shoot 13-over-par on the back nine with three birdies, one each by Woods, Els and Havret.
“I kind of know why,” Mickelson said, apparently repressing a shot at the USGA and their course setup, “but I would rather not get into it. It just doesn’t sound good.”
“I wouldn’t say the course was set up well for me,” said defending champion Lucas Glover. “I’m not good at landing balls in the rough so they can get close to the hole.”
McDowell stood in the 18th fairway and watched Havret miss a birdie putt that would have forced a tie.
He laid up with his second shot and wedged his third just above the hole, and his lag putt got him inside the nervous zone, with a foot-long tap-in to become Europe’s first U.S. Open winner since Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine, 40 years ago.
McDowell also is the first Irishman, Northern or otherwise, to win the Open.
“Basically I went out there wanting to par it to death,” McDowell said. “I had a good game plan. I wasn’t nervous like I was yesterday, when I was leading.”
On Sunday morning it was inconceivable that McDowell could shoot 3-over and expect to usurp the 3-stroke lead by Dustin Johnson. But McDowell parred the first three holes and wound up leading by two.
Johnson, playing with McDowell, triple-bogeyed the second hole when his approach shot got buried in fescue and he needed three chips to get on the green, including one that he had to play left-handed.
Johnson’s tee shot on the third wound up behind the 16th green, and no one could find the ball until the five-minute search had elapsed. That meant Johnson had to take a stroke-and-distance penalty and return to the tee.
That double bogey dropped him to 1-under, and Johnson couldn’t shake it, winding up with an 82, tying the worst score by a third-round Open leader. Remarkably, he still tied for eighth.
But then it was such a tough day that Ben Curtis began the day 49th, shot 3-under 68, and finished 14th.
McDowell’s best major finish until Sunday was 10th at last year’s PGA Championship. He was a standout for Europe’s Ryder Cup team in 2008 and was college player of the year at UAB.
He grew up at Portrush, right on the Irish Sea and the site of the only British Open that wasn’t held in Great Britain. Fred Daly, the last previous Ulsterman to win a major championship, is from Portrush, and McDowell said the craggy landscape reminded him of Pebble Beach, without the mega-million-dollar houses, of course.
His dad, Ken, embraced McDowell on the 18th green.
“He said he only wanted one Father’s Day present this year,” McDowell said.
With the trophy right beside him, McDowell said he didn’t quite know how to react.
“I think of the Opens at Pebble Beach,” he said. “Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Kite, Tiger Woods. And me. I’m not sure I belong on that list. But I’m there.”