BETHESDA, MARYLAND l Graeme McDowell delivered. My goodness, how he delivered. The 2010 U.S. Open champion, the man who triumphed at Pebble Beach, fulfilled every function the United States Golf Association required of him and earned paeans of praise from Mike Davis, the executive director.
In his year as champion, McDowell had spoken into hundreds of microphones, seen journalists scribble thousands of his words into their notebooks. There had been enough television footage of him to plaster over the whole of Ulster from east to west. How many times had he talked of the significance of becoming the first man from Europe to win the Open for 40 years?
How often had interviewers interrogated his father, his sister, his brother, his managers, his clubmates, trying to capture the significance for Northern Ireland of having the U.S. Open champion as a countryman. How many requests for a few minutes of his time had his manager received?
But now, on the eighth hole of his second round at Congressional – his 17th – the defending champion experienced the kind of luck that told him it was about to end. This was the hole Rory McIlroy, his friend and countryman, had eagled a few hours earlier. At 350 yards, it was the only par 4 that was less than 400 yards long and, if you dared, to drive over the trees – to cut the corner in other words – you could get very close to the green.
McDowell, holding his head high, strode eagerly to his ball. He’d had two birdies in his previous nine holes. He was 1-over par, and while this was 13 strokes behind McIlroy, it was six or so strokes behind Y.E. Yang, who was McIlroy’s leading chaser. A birdie here and a par 5 that he might birdie coming up next and McDowell was thinking: “I can get under par.”
“Rory’s a flusher,” McDowell said. “He’s probably the best driver of a ball I have ever seen. At the Ryder Cup we nicknamed him the BMW because he is the ultimate driving machine.”
McIlroy’s drive on the eighth had left him 113 yards; McDowell’s second shot was further, a flick with a wedge. But whereas McIlroy’s ball rolled slowly back down a slight incline and eventually dropped into the hole, McDowell’s came down the same hill, past the hole and on and on and on.
“Stop,” Colin Morrissey, one of McDowell’s managers, muttered to himself as he watched. “Stop,” Kenny McDowell, Graeme’s father, said, peering at the ball from underneath a large straw hat and behind the ropes.
Disobediently, the ball ended 30 feet below the hole. No chance for a birdie; a par was disappointing.
So, too, was the bogey six on the ninth, his 18th, to close out his round. Going for the green, McDowell’s second shot hit a tree and his approach left him 35 feet from the flagstick over a ridge, a slightly downhill putt. Three putts followed.
Those were the few moments when the 31-year-old Northern Irishman knew in his heart of hearts that he would not be holding up the handsome silver trophy he’d had boxed up and posted back to the USGA a couple of weeks earlier. He wasn’t going to defend his title as Curtis Strange had in 1989 after winning at The Country Club, Brookline, the year before, nor as Willie Anderson had done at the wonderfully named Myopia Hunt Club in 1905, after winning in 1904 and 1903.
“I’m proud of the way I handled myself this past year” McDowell said. And well he might. In the aftermath of his success in California, he had won a tournament in Spain, scored the point in the singles that won Europe the Ryder Cup and defeated Tiger Woods in Woods’ own tournament.
“Phew, he might have thought to himself as he relaxed at his home in Orlando at year’s end. “What a year.”
Even after crashing out of the lead he had held after 54 holes at The Players in May with a last round 79, and even after an 81 in the third round of the Wales Open in June, McDowell retained his dignity. He treated success and failure, Kipling’s twin imposters, with equal amounts of respect and disdain, remaining calm, courteous and articulate. If, as someone said, you tell more about a person in defeat than in victory then you can say after his year of years that McDowell has proved himself a rounded, thoroughly admirable young man.
“You just couldn’t ask for a better U.S. Open champion than Graeme McDowell,” said Davis at Congressional. “He has been a wonderful, gracious champion and has done a terrific job representing the championship and the game.”