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Graeme McDowell hangs on to win U.S. Open for his first major title

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2010; D01

PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF. -- There is no way to tell the story of what happened here Sunday without squinting, shuddering, averting the eyes. Pebble Beach Golf Links, among the most beautiful places in all of sports, hosted the final round of a U.S. Open that will, unfortunately, be remembered for its abject ugliness. Think back to the last, great, meaningful golf shot struck here. Tiger Woods's 3-wood from the 18th fairway, the one that ran some 260 yards onto the green? Tremendous. Problem was, it came Saturday evening.

Emerging from the carnage, meet your U.S. Open champion: Graeme McDowell, a 30-year-old from Portrush, Northern Ireland, who nearly didn't qualify to be here but was resilient all week, the only man to finish at even-par 284 for the tournament. His final-round 74 Sunday -- he made one birdie, and bogeyed four of his final 10 holes -- won't stand out among the best ever played, but it was exactly what was necessary, and it left him hugging first his father on Father's Day, which was plenty.

"I think I died and gone to heaven for sure," said McDowell, the first European to win the U.S. Open since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970. "This can't be real. I don't think this will ever sink in."

The dragon he slew? That would be Frenchman Gregory Havret, whose ranking in the world was 391, who needed to hit a 45-foot putt just to make the playoff in a European qualifying event, and whose name was on the lips of exactly no one when the week began. But playing alongside Woods, Havret's closing 1-over-par 72 was the best round in the last four twosomes of the day -- a remarkable achievement, given he had never played a U.S. Open before -- but one shot short of forcing a playoff.

"My feeling right now is it's probably the best surprise for me," Havret said. "So I'm very happy. But it's also the biggest disappointment."

The disappointments, though, only start there. Even with McDowell's fine performance, the memories of this Sunday at Pebble Beach -- a day that, in the past, was marked by Jack Nicklaus's 1-iron at 17, Tom Watson's chip-in on the same hole, Tom Kite's holed pitch at 7 or Woods's astonishing record victory in 2000 -- will be not of what he did, but what others failed to do.

How many of the other competitors could put their heads on pillows around the world Sunday night, and rest comfortably? The detritus consists of golf's greatest stars. Here are the scores those players could have shot on Sunday -- and forced a Monday playoff with McDowell:

Woods, with 14 major championships to his credit, needed a 1-over 72. Ernie Els, winner of two previous Opens, needed an even-par 71. Phil Mickelson, a four-time major winner and five-time Open runner-up, needed a 1-under 70. And Dustin Johnson, the third-round leader who won the past two PGA Tour events here, needed all of a 6-over 77. Their results, respectively: 75, 73, 73 and an absolutely out-of-nowhere 82.

"It was anybody's ballgame," Mickelson said.

True, but precious few chose to play.

Start with Johnson, because of all the wonderful golf that was played over the first three days here, he had authored the best. When he rose Sunday, he stood at 6 under, carrying a three-shot lead over McDowell. When he made par at 1 and drilled his drive at the 502-yard second, there was no indication of what was to come.

Johnson's approach at the second, though, found an awkward lie at the edge of a bunker, one he tried to play left-handed. That fell in the thick rough. He flubbed the next chip, and the collapse was on. Through 54 holes, the smooth-as-molasses South Carolinian made five bogeys and one double. The triple bogey he made at the second -- one that gave back all of his lead -- started a precipitous downfall that gave him, over his final 18 holes, six bogeys, a double and that triple, resulting in the highest final-round score by a third-round leader in 99 years.

"Dustin Johnson's one of the best players in the game, and this course, he had a tough time with today," Mickelson said. "It happens. It just happens as part of this tournament."

Other than Havret, no one stood strong. Woods, who turned in a brilliant 66 Saturday, three-putted the first, couldn't get up-and-down from a bunker on the short fourth, made a silly decision to hit 3-wood at the sixth when 2-iron would have been fine -- and trickled it over a cliff, leading to a bogey on a birdie hole. Down five to start the day, the opportunity was there to get in it -- and Woods didn't.

"You take away three mental errors right there and I'm right there," he said.

Els, too, had his chances, particularly when he birdied three of his first six holes. But he had a murderous stretch on three of the finest consecutive par 4s in the world -- Pebble's 8, 9 and 10. Els went through there bogey-double bogey-bogey. Yet after he birdied the 12th to get back to even for the tournament, he could have parred in and forced a playoff. He didn't, making a poor wedge shot at the par-5 14th that led to bogey, then bogeying the nearly impossible 17th -- and departing the course without discussing his experience.

So in the end, it was Havret and McDowell, playing one group apart. After he bogeyed 17, Havret walked to the majestic, seaside, par-5 18th, needing birdie. He striped his drive, and ended up with a 10-footer for birdie, one that would have tied McDowell. He didn't scare the hole.

"That's a very bad putt," Havret said. "Probably the worst of the week."

McDowell, watching from the fairway, had his decision made for him: Lay up to 100 yards, knock it on, and two-putt for par -- and the title. When he did just that -- a bit of flawless execution in the midst of a 40-car pileup -- he became not just a survivor, but a major champion, however you look at it.

"They gave me this thing," he said, all but hugging the trophy. "I couldn't believe it."

Nor could a lot of other people, be they in the pubs of Portrush celebrating with a pint or three, or departing this slice of gorgeousness, their chances to win the Open frittered away.

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