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2010 U.S. Open: Graeme McDowell's gamble came long ago

Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell becomes the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the U.S. Open.

Associated Press

Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell becomes the first European since Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win the U.S. Open.

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — His final putt was short. Practically a tap-in.

And he played the final hole safe. Nothing but sensible and conservative shots.

If it was a risk you were looking for, you should have seen Graeme McDowell a dozen years ago. If it was distance you wanted to see from your 2010 U.S. Open champion, you should have been there when he left his home and flew across an ocean as a teenager.

The world got its first good look at Graeme McDowell's life when he held his dad in his arms on the 18th green of the Pebble Beach Golf Links late in the evening on Father's Day, but the pivotal part of his story goes back much earlier.

It begins in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s when McDowell was a college freshman taking mechanical engineering classes and trying to figure out how to improve his raw golf game. He decided America was the place to learn and went about finagling a scholarship.

That an Irish kid somehow ended up at the University of Alabama-Birmingham is funny enough.

But McDowell's first night in America was spent alone in a hotel near the airport in Memphis because he missed his connecting flight after having a difficult time explaining to immigration officials exactly what he was doing in this country.

When he finally got to Birmingham, he discovered how hard it would be to navigate the distance between an Irish brogue and a Southern twang when he couldn't even order a sandwich at a Subway.

Yet, by 2002, the scrawny kid from Portrush was given an award as the finest college golfer in America, beating out the likes of Camilo Villegas and Hunter Mahan. And now, on Sunday, he beat America's best to become the first European winner of the U.S. Open in 40 years.

"It's unbelievable. I would have never dreamed this," his father, Kenny, said. "But miracles do happen then, don't they?"

For McDowell, who lives by Lake Nona in Orlando, the miracle was in his ability to survive. On one of the toughest courses in the world, McDowell hung on by making fewer mistakes than his pursuers.

Think of the leaderboard early on Sunday:

In third place for a while was Tiger Woods, winner of 14 majors. In a tie for first place for a short time was Ernie Els, winner of three majors. And lingering near the top five all day was Phil Mickel­son, winner of four majors.

Yet the U.S. Open champion was a guy who had never won a PGA Tour event.

"He played very, very professionally in terms of strategic, U.S. Open golf," said his caddie, Ken Comboy. "You saw it out here on Friday with guys on the 14th. Once you make a mistake, you can compound it. The secret is to make mistakes on the right side of the pin.

"He was magnificent. He did his homework. He did his preparation."

The six golfers in the final three pairings on Sunday combined to finish 24 shots over par in the final round. In other words, nobody reached out and grabbed the U.S. Open title. McDowell, instead, refused to let go of it.

He began the day in second place, three strokes behind Dustin Johnson, who imploded in remarkable fashion. By the third hole, McDowell had a share of the lead. By the fifth, he had the outright lead.

"I've played in plenty of major championships. I played in plenty of tournaments where I made the mistakes," McDowell said. "I feel like I've served my apprenticeship a few times. I've been in position going into a weekend at majors and not done the job.

"I think I've died and gone to heaven for sure. This can't be real. I don't think this will ever sink in. It's a very special feeling to pick this trophy up on the 18th green of one of the most special golf courses on the planet."

The truth is McDowell had been developing a reputation as the kind of golfer who plays better on Thursday and Friday than he did on weekends. Of all the golfers near the top of the leaderboard, he seemed a likely candidate to fade.

McDowell's father, who has been traveling much of the world with him after retiring a couple of years ago, said he took Graeme out for coffee on Sunday morning to help him relax.

They talked about Graeme's amateur career. They talked about old times in Ireland. They talked about his old school. They talked about everything except the U.S. Open.

"I always practiced hard. I was always very ambitious and driven," McDowell said, clutching his U.S. Open trophy. "I always dreamt of having one of these. This is a pretty special day in my career."

And what did father and son talk about when they met again on the 18th green Sunday evening?

"I said, 'You're something, kid,' " Kenny said. "And he said, 'Happy Father's Day, Dad.' "

The record will show that Graeme McDowell played it safe on Sunday.

He will know better.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

2010 U.S. Open: Graeme McDowell's gamble came long ago 06/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 21, 2010 7:31am]
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