By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 21, 2010; D01
PEBBLE BEACH, CALIF.
Sometimes, you can hear the voice of a U.S. Open champion in the making and not even know it at the time.
On the third tee on Sunday at Pebble Beach, I stood next to Dustin Johnson after he'd just made triple bogey at the second hole to fall back into a tie for the lead with his playing partner, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland. Somehow, in the crush, I'd gotten the perfect spot to hear whatever pieces of Johnson's golf soul might leak out in his moment of crisis.
However, the South Carolinian was simply solemn and silent, locked in his thoughts, perhaps frozen by the moment, saying absolutely nothing. He was, sad to say, about to pump his hurried tee ball into three-foot-deep gorse for a double bogey and then disappear down a dark, hellish golf hole, shooting 82 on a day when 76 would've won an Open.
But there was a voice chattering on that tee -- McDowell chirping in thick accents with his caddie. You'd have thought they were in a pub back home, without a care, discussing some golfer on TV who was confronting a tough tee shot.
The compact, 30-year-old McDowell, with an abbreviated, shallow backswing, then a lash through the ball to a high finish, crushed a towering tee shot over a copse of strategic trees at the dogleg's turn. "I think that'll be just about perfect when it's done," he said.
And so it was by the end -- perfectly done by McDowell.
From the time he arrived here he said he felt at home, like he was on a breezy seaside links on his native west coast of Ireland, put at peace as so many others have been by the scenes here, which strike deep into you.
In Friday, as he took the lead, others were miffed by long delays. Not McDowell. "There are some pretty good sights to kind of take your mind off things," he said. "You've got to be ready for [delays] and take in the scenery; it's pretty spectacular."
All week, he was the one player who seemed to sense that a special moment was arriving for him. Others hoped. But the man with the scruffy wannabe beard seemed to have seen the script. Or maybe it was a kind of self-hypnosis.
"Is this weekend my weekend? I have no idea, but if I get a sniff Sunday afternoon I'll be ready for it," he said. Then, once he'd reached the final Sunday pairing, he added, "Where else would you rather be on a Sunday afternoon but the last group in a major at Pebble Beach. So bring it on."
If anyone else in contention here truly felt such confidence, then they certainly didn't play like it, especially Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who finished tied for fourth but couldn't cash in when it mattered most. After a 66 on Friday, which put him directly in the path of back-to-back majors, Mickelson finished 73-73 on the weekend and never felt like New Phil, but rather that former, disappointing fellow from years ago. After a 66 on Saturday, Woods claimed he'd found his game. Overnight, he misplaced it and shot 75.
So, the 37th-ranked player in the world became the first European in 40 years to win the U.S. Open. Northern Ireland will go absolutely nuts to add another name on the Open trophy after England's Tony Jacklin's in '70. As much as golf means to Americans, you only have to trudge around a few Ryder Cups on the continent to know how much closer to the bone the game cuts, especially in the British Isles.
"I think I've died and gone to heaven. This can't be real. I don't think it will ever sink in," said McDowell, hugging the trophy. "It's a surreal feeling. To win here -- the golf course is just awesome. I felt calm all week.
"I'm playing the golf of my life," said McDowell, fresh off a win in Wales. "I don't know how much celebrating I'm going to do. I should sober up pre-Ryder Cup some time."
This championship was probably won on the first eight holes as McDowell not only stood up to Open pressure but also survived the sight of one of the saddest Open collapses on record -- the 82 by Johnson, who sometimes hits drives nearly 400 yards.
Our national championship is almost always lost more often than it is won. That's the whole premise of our annual golf tragi-comedy: Make a mockery of a lifetime of work and accomplishment by the whole field, then call it entertainment. Mostly, we love it.
Sometimes, the key to winning is ignoring what happens to others around you -- since the USGA obviously has plans for the same thing to happen to you. Watching Johnson implode at the second hole epitomized the problem.
When Johnson's approach shot landed in rough only 40 feet from the hole, he played a chip left-handed and barely hit the ball. In that instant, Open Mortification set in. Playing so hurriedly that the crowd didn't even have time to realize that he was taking real swings, not practice ones, Johnson almost whiffed his next wedge shot, barely moving the ball. A missed three-foot putt completed the traditional portrait of disaster.
By the time McDowell reached the eighth green -- often considered the most inspiring panorama in the whole golf universe -- he faced a seven-foot putt for par that would put him in commanding position. The whole field was falling apart while he was 1-under par for the day. But there were no up-to-date leader boards to be seen.
"What are the others doing?" asked a wee Irishman, watching McDowell from a hillside beside the eighth green when he noticed me watching a portable mini-TV feed.
"They're all falling apart. Els is taking a big number at the 10th hole, probably a double. Woods bogeyed this hole. Phil is in trouble," I answered. "If McDowell gets up and down from this bunker, only [Gregory] Havret will be within four shots of him."
"Well, I couldn't get up and down from there, but I believe he can," the gentleman said. McDowell did -- sinking his putt-- and the fellow, who turned out to be McDowell's dad, Kenny, strode away smiling.
"All my dad's done all year is talk about Pebble Beach," McDowell said. Once the son was in the lead, Dad put the pressure on. "He said there was only one thing he wanted for Father's Day," said McDowell. "I wasn't too sure. That's a tough present."
McDowell paused a moment. He'd beaten Pebble Beach in stiff breezes and chilly conditions. His 284 score had exactly matched the Open's standard: Old Man Par. He'd thwarted Woods and Mickelson in a week when they desperately wanted to win. And he'd run down the third-round leader, the titanically long-hitting Johnson who'd left many a McDowell tee shot well in arrears.
"But," said McDowell with a shrug and a grin, "there 'ya go."