GRAEME McDOWELL can prove he’s golf’s toughest in-fighter today by winning the US Open for the second time in three years and completing an incredible hat-trick for Northern Ireland in the sport’s most gruelling Major.
McDowell, 32, soared into a share of the lead with American Jim Furyk on one-under par with a superb third round 68 and hopes the massive Irish contingent in the galleries at the Olympic Club can help him reclaim the trophy won by Rory McIlroy at Congressional last year. .
“I expect a great atmosphere on this golf course,” he said. “The crowds are fantastic, and there really is a good buzz out there. Today may be kind of a Sunday afternoon at Augusta, the way the cheers go around this place.
“I’ve got great support in San Francisco. There might be more Irishmen out here than there are in Ireland,” he added. “I had fun interacting with them today. I've enjoyed the buzz of it all and, importantly, it helped to keep me relaxed.”
The Portrush phenomenon drew once again on the famous fighting qualities which underpinned his phenomenal 2010 US Open success down the California coast at Pebble Beach and in Celtic Manor, where he clinched victory for Europe at the Ryder Cup.
He needed a series of gutsy clutch putts to save par after landing in a bunker at five, the back rough at six and sand once again at the par three eighth.
Yet McDowell showed his true colours at the ninth hole. One shot behind Furyk standing on the tee, he blazing his drive into trees and then hit his attempted escape through the fairway and into long grass in front of the 10th tee.
The Ulsterman’s championship had arrived at crisis point and he responded superbly, hitting a splendidly soft pitch out of an impossible position to set-up a battling bogey.
“I’d a big flare in the right trees there at nine and made a bit of a Tarzan five,” he explained. “That kind of woke me up a little bit. I needed to slow my swing down and get a good groove and rhythm going.”
McDowell pulled himself together brilliantly, playing the rest of the back nine in three-under, including a sweet birdie at the last “to get myself right in the mix for to tournament”.
Furyk, 42, 2003 US Open-winner at Olympia Fields and second at his national open twice in the past five years, dropped a shot out at the long 16th to fall behind but rebounded with a birdie four at 17 to rejoin McDowell at the top of the leaderboard.
Tiger Woods sparked hopes of a return to winning ways at the Majors as he went through 36 holes in a tie for the lead.
Yet he crumpled under pressure yesterday, a psychologically bruising 75 leaving Tiger tied 14th on four-over and needing to shoot the lights out in the fourth round to end his four year drought at the Majors.
Going into Sunday in a share of fourth, just three shots behind McDowell and Furyk, Lee Westwood once again finds himself one good closinground away from a long-awaited breakthrough at the Majors.
While Padraig Harrington played some first class golf yesterday, he must hit his wedges closer and polish off more chances with the putter than he did during a frustrating third round 71 to have any chance of bridging a yawning six shot gap between himself and the leaders today.
McDowell insisted that anyone as far back as four-over has “a realistic shot to win … it’s such a tough course, there’s a really fine line between 67, 68 and shooting 75 or 76.” Yet as he proved in 2010, few are better equipped mentally for this challenge.