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Gritty McDowell denies Americans

Mike Clayton

Mike Clayton

Written on Monday, 21 June 2010 15:51

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Graeme McDowell may seem to be an unlikely US Open champion but two weeks ago in Wales he shot two incredible weekend scores - 64 and 63 - to win the Wales Open. He hit iron after iron straight at the pin on a 6700-metre golf course that former Australian Open champion Peter Fowler described as one ''where you just don't imagine anyone shooting those scores''.

Clearly here was a man at the top of his game and with Tiger Woods not at the top of his, there was always a chance for a bright young man to come to the top.

After three days it looked like it might be huge-hitting American, Dustin Johnson. He had a three-shot overnight lead but many men have slept on leads like that in US Opens and succumbed to the pressure of the moment, and the unrelenting nature of the golf courses over which the USGA choose to decide their champion.

Johnson's lead, staggeringly, was gone after two holes. After driving close enough to the second green - a hole converted from a par five to a par four - to be hitting a wedge he conspired to make a complete mess from there and finish in seven. Shaken, he hit a wild hook off the next, lost the ball, made six and was never heard from again.

That brought Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els into the championship and, while all had their chances, they all made crucial mistakes. In fairness, the golf course was organized to extract critical mistakes because there is such a fine line in these championships between a good shot and a catastrophe.

McDowell played the most confidently because he drove the straightest and in the end the only player who looked like beating him was Frenchman Gregory Havret.

Havret came to the last hole in desperate need of a four but after splashing out of the front bunker at the famous, around-the-cliff, par-five finisher, he missed from maybe 2.5 metres, leaving the man from Northern Ireland needing a par to join Fred Daly - The Open Champion of 1947 - as the only major championship winner from his country.

McDowell duly managed that by taking a nine iron for his second shot, a wedge for his third and then two putting down the hill without having to hole anything of any length for the second putt.

Havret was a revelation. He is ranked somewhere in the 300s but he has won big events in Europe and he swings beautifully and he hits well. No one with such a lowly ranking stands a chance at Wimbledon this fortnight but, in golf, the rankings are sometimes not an accurate reflection of talent.

Had the Frenchman won it would have been an even more astonishing story than it is already. He came to the last hole at the European qualifying event at Walton Heath a couple of weeks ago needing to birdie the last hole to make a playoff for the last spots and he holed it from 17 metres - up a tier - for the three. Then he made two at one of the hardest par threes in Britain to earn a place in the field. By such fine pieces of luck are careers made and more notice will be taken of Havret from now on.

In the decade since Woods won here by 15 shots in 2000, South African Retief Goosen has won the Open twice (2001 and 2004) and was followed in 2005 by New Zealander Michael Campbell, Australian Geoff Ogilvy in 2006, Argentinean Angel Cabrera in 2007 and now McDowell.

For foreigners to win the most important championship in America so frequently is something that was unimaginable 30 years ago. It is a tournament set up - still - to determine who most can play like the incomparable four-time champion Ben Hogan. He was the master at relentlessly hitting fairways and greens - at the greatest-ever Open in 1960 at Cherry Hills he hit 34 consecutive greens on the final day after hitting all 18 in the second round - but no one since has played with such assurance on the hardest courses the game serves up and one wonders if even Hogan could have manufactured a shot good enough to hit the par-three 17th green.

In the end, the winner is usually a survivor and there is perhaps something to be said for the joke that the USGA don't actually want anyone to win their championship.

Woods played a brilliant third round and a par round on Sunday would have given him a low enough score to win but he never looked like doing that. For a man having a miserable time of it on and off the course, he has still been fourth in the two majors this year and he will no doubt be more than a threat at St Andrews in a few weeks' time.

In the end, though, this week was more evidence that the game is no longer dominated by Americans and for golf around the world that is cause for celebration - and it's a fair bet there will plenty of that in Northern Ireland.

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