Saturday 21 April 2018

Five things the US Open at Olympic taught us

Padraig Harrington showed his major quality
at the Olympic Club
Padraig Harrington showed his major quality at the Olympic Club

Karl MacGinty

THE United States Golf Association set out with one ambition in each year's US Open -- to provide a test so comprehensive and demanding, it will "identify the best player".

Webb Simpson may not be a name that sparks as much excitement as Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or even Rory McIlroy.

Yet there's no doubting this young, clean-cut, God-fearing American's worth as a champion, especially after the two rounds of 68 he shot at the weekend at Olympic.

The glorious old Lake Course at Olympic, with its narrow, dog-legged fairways running at canted angles through thick cypress trees and towering pines, was set up tough enough to identify so much more than the best golfer.

During a memorable championship, we learned a great deal about many players but probably not as much as they discovered about themselves.

1 Padraig Harrington (T4, 74 70 71 68, +3) still loves the smell of cordite on Sunday afternoon at the Majors.

For a couple of hours at Olympic, it must have smelled like victory to the Dubliner, whose eyes blazed once again with excitement and desire after nearly four years of frustration.

Harrington's eighth place at the Masters had been promising, but he truly contended down the stretch in San Francisco.

With the brilliance of his chip-in at 13 matched by the true grit of the up-and-down birdie at 17 that put him right in the frame, Harrington showed he really has another Major or two in him.

This 40-year-old warhorse is still at his best when the attrition rate is high, like it was at Carnoustie in 2007, Birkdale and Oakland Hills the following year and Olympic on Sunday.

Watch out for Harrington at next month's British Open or August's US PGA if the wind blows at Lytham or Kiawah.

But the way they set up Augusta National these days for eagles, birdies and boosted TV ratings, it would take four stormy days in Georgia for him to win a Masters.

The science behind the fitness programmes designed by Dr Liam Hennessy and religiously adhered to by Harrington have kept him in remarkable physical shape, while more than three years of adversity have made him tougher.

"All the way through my game I've improved as a player," said Harrington, adding: "Winning is a habit but tough times make you more resilient. I'm harder.

"Anybody who knows me from my amateur days wouldn't have thought it was possible to get harder, but I have. I am harder."

Correctly deducing that he needed an eagle two to win or force a play-off on Sunday, Harrington went for the suicide pin at 18 but pulled his gap wedge into an impossible lie in the left greenside bunker, leading to bogey.

To his relief, he did indeed finish two behind Webb Simpson in a tie for fourth place over, a finish that was worth $276,841 and enough world ranking points to lift him 19 places to 75th.

The only way is up for Harrington.

2 Rory McIlroy (MC, 77 73, +10) is a gifted player but he's got a way to go before he can be considered great.

McIlroy was hailed widely as the next Tiger after his mind-blowing US Open victory at Congressional last year ... at the very least, his feeble defence of that title on a golf course that didn't suit his glory game or adventurous nature must lead to a more realistic assessment of the 23-year-old.

The great champions, like Tiger in his pomp or Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Ben Hogan were capable of grinding out a performance on any given Sunday and not just when the course, conditions or even circumstances went in their favour.

McIlroy is talented enough to aspire to that level some day but, as we've seen over the last couple of months since the Masters, he is not yet well-rounded enough mentally to cope with or adapt to adversity on the course.

The fight was knocked right out of him on Saturday morning at Augusta, for example, leaving McIlroy a slump-shouldered shadow of himself for the rest of that weekend.

Then we saw similarly concerning performances at Wentworth and Memorial, and the spirit almost visibly drained out McIlroy during last Thursday's 77 at Olympic.

These are hard times for a young man who, by his own admission, "took his eye off the ball" after 12 top-five finishes in 13 events up to the victory at Honda in March that propelled him to world No 1.

Though he threw himself headlong into his work after Wentworth, McIlroy still missed his fourth cut in five events last Friday. If you step off the bus in pro golf, you have to run very hard to catch it again.

No doubt, he'll return to peak form a tad harder, maybe more hungry and certainly a lot wiser ... it's all part of the learning process which should eventually make him great.

3 Tiger Woods (T21, 69 70 75 73, +7) shows how near and yet so far away he is from the voracious predator of old.

On Friday evening, the vast majority of people at Olympic were getting rose petals ready to throw in Tiger's path as he marched to Major championship victory No 15 at the weekend.

After wins at his own Chevron Challenge last winter and this season's Arnie Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill and The Memorial promoted by Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield Village, the graph continued to rise impressively for Woods over the first two rounds at Olympic.

A renewed air of assurance seemed to surround Tiger as he eased into a share of the lead at halfway with opening rounds of 69 and 70 on a course playing fast and hard.

Clearly, the man once again was master of his own domain ... yet when Saturday came and Tiger came under pressure to deliver on the promise of his first two days, the magic died.

For the first time in his career, Woods went into reverse in the third round of a Major after hitting the top of the leaderboard through 36 holes.

His five-over-par round of 75, which included six bogeys, was the worst he had shot in his career after going into the weekend in at least a tie for the lead.

Tiger's game had been imperious in those first two rounds as he followed his game plan to the letter.

Yet when the USGA watered the greens on Saturday night, calling for a change in strategy, Woods was found wanting. The swing is getting there but the Kevlar confidence and mental agility of old is missing.

4 Webb Simpson (W, 72 73 68 68, +1) is typical of the new, younger breed of Major champions. Since Phil Mickelson won the Masters in 2010, golf has crowned nine first-time Major champions, and all but two of them were 30 or younger.

The exceptions were Darren Clarke, who was 42 when he made his long-awaited breakthrough in last July's British Open at Royal St George's and, believe it or not, recent Masters winner Bubba Watson.

Yes, Watson is 33, though in his heart, he's clearly still a teenager!

Simpson, who registered his two previous career wins on the PGA Tour in 2011, is just 26.

Like 2010 US Open champion McIlroy, he played in the Walker Cup at Royal Co Down five years ago, featuring alongside other future Tour winners Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson on the victorious US side.

The saddest figure at Olympic on Sunday was Jim Furyk (42), whose prospects of adding a second US Open title to the one he won at Olympia Fields in 2003 expired over the final three holes -- ironic, given his endorsement of the 5-Hour Energy boosting drink.

Yet Furyk was so fired up after a final-round 74 (which included not one birdie), there's clearly still plenty of fight in the old dog yet. Asked if Olympic had given him confidence in his ability to win more Majors, Furyk paused a moment, then quietly said: "Two years ago I was the Player of the Year in the US.

"I played poorly last year and all of a sudden I'm middle-aged. So I've got to be honest with you with you, that p***es me off."

5 Graeme McDowell (T2, 69 72 68 73, +2) is the last word when it comes to guts and determination. For convenience, reporters tape many interviews with golfers, and my recorder has a facility which slows down the playback, making it easier to transcribe.

When I replay McDowell, his accent is distorted to a drawl, making the Portrush ace sound like John Wayne.

How appropriate that seemed on Sunday, given the 'True Grit' McDowell showed in fighting back from repeated adversity to get within one missed 24-foot putt of forcing a play-off.

McDowell's share of second with Michael Thompson on two-over earned him $695,916, enough Ryder Cup points to count on his place at Medinah in September and the admiration of all who witnessed it.

Now he can withdraw from the Scottish Open and reconnoitre British Open venue Lytham instead. First, of course, comes next week's Irish Open at Royal Portrush. These are heady days indeed for the 32-year-old.

After a steady first couple of holes on Sunday, fate turned against McDowell. He dropped a shot from an awkward lie on a little ridge just shy of the third green and, in what seemed like a blink, found himself four-over through nine without doing much wrong.

Such was the nature of Olympic. "There's a very fine line on that course," he said.

Still, McDowell held it together. Though he hit only three fairways as he struggled consistently off the tee on Sunday and despite the panic rising in his gorge, he fought back with sweet birdies at 11 and 12.

Though rocked by two more bogeys at 13 and 14, McDowell still gave himself that outside chance at the last with a superb up-and-down birdie at 17.

As he proved in victory at Pebble Beach in 2010 and with Sunday's close call at Olympic, G-Mac ranks among the toughest of golf's Sunday matinee idols.

Irish Independent

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