Saturday 24 March 2018

McDowell in fine fettle for Pinehurst

Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland hits a tee shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland hits a tee shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phil Mickelson hits a tee shot on the 12th hole during the continuation of the second round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Tyler Lecka/Getty Images)

William S Callahan

NEITHER Graeme McDowell nor Phil Mickelson set Southwind on fire during a storm-ravaged week at the FedEx St Jude Classic, but the Portrush ace appeared to be in the stronger position of these two Major champions in the countdown to this week's US Open at Pinehurst.

If ever a US Open venue looked tailor-made for Mickelson, it's the majestic No 2 course at Pinehurst.

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore removed a whopping 35 acres of deep rough, replacing them with ragged waste areas, to restore the vision of its Scottish designer Donald Ross.

Mickelson's swashbuckling nature underpins his heartbreaking record of six runner-up finishes and no victories at his national championship, his hopes usually vanishing in the deep rough which lines the fairways and besieges the greens at the US Open.

This year, however, the adventurous have a decent risk-reward option off the tee, while Mickelson's famous short game should come into its own at Pinehurst, where greens that resemble little upturned saucers are surrounded by beguiling run-off areas.

Yet if Mickelson is to fulfil the wish of so many of his fellow Americans and collect the US Open trophy and seal a career Grand Slam on the eve of his 44th birthday next Monday, he needed to find momentum and his putting touch in Memphis.

Though birdies at 11 and 12 yesterday raised hope of the left-hander hauling himself into contention for a first win since the British Open at Muirfield last July, bogeys at 13 and 14 knocked him back as a closing two-over 72 left him on six-under.

That left Mickelson tied 11th and still without a top-10 finish since last autumn's Barclays Championship, an adrenalin-sapping run for a man who bared his soul at Sawgrass last month when he said: "Mentally, I'm just really soft right now."

McDowell is certainly not in the rip-roaring form which preceded his 2010 US Open win at Pebble Beach, when he romped away with the Welsh Open at Celtic Manor less than a fortnight before his date with Major destiny on the Pacific Ocean shore.

Yet even though two even-par rounds of 70 left the Ulsterman in a share of 24th yesterday on three-under, a distant seven behind FedEx St Jude winner Ben Crane, his confidence and resolve were undiminished in Memphis.

After five top 10s in seven events up to April's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, McDowell missed the cut at Augusta, finished 27th in his defence of the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head and came home 62nd at Sawgrass.

Yet, after three weeks at home in Orlando with his wife Kristin, who is expecting their first child in August, a refreshed McDowell knocked some rough edges off his long game and putted nicely enough in Memphis to have confidence in his ability to contend at Pinehurst.

The determining factor for McDowell this week, one suspects, will be the weather.

With rain threatened from Tuesday to Friday, it'll be the Portrush man's fervent wish that Pinehurst's fiery fairways won't be softened unduly, making them play longer and into the hands of Rory McIlroy and other boomers.

After sitting out April's Masters for the first time in 15 years, Padraig Harrington this week misses the US Open for the first time since 1999.

The reason why showed in graphic detail as the Dubliner's recent resurgence was undermined by a head-spinning whirl of two double-bogeys and nine bogeys in the 27 holes he played yesterday, against three birdies.

Starting at 10 in his third round in the morning, Harrington played the back nine in a calamitous eight-over 43 for a 79, hitting another three balls into the water in the process, bringing his calamitous total for the round to five.

He wrapped up with a two-over 72 for a 65th-place finish on six-over, a deeply disappointing finish after the 42-year-old had opened so impressively with rounds of 68 and 67.


Crane blitzed the field as he played his first 36 holes in 12-under (63, 65) and could afford to play the last 29 holes in this tournament without making a birdie and still finish one ahead of fellow American Troy Merritt after a closing 73 to claim his fifth PGA Tour win.

The one man who arguably took the most momentum from yesterday's proceedings in Memphis was Ian Poulter.

He powered into a share of sixth place on seven-under on the back of a spectacular six-under 64, a timely best round on the PGA Tour in nearly three years for the Englishman as he clinched his first top 10 of the year.

Jason Millard has been disqualified from the US Open after belatedly calling a penalty on himself in qualifying.

Millard, who made it through in in Memphis on June 2, was playing his third shot on the 18th hole of Colonial Country Club's North Course when the penalty occurred.

Meanwhile, at the Lyoness Open, Sweden's Mikael Lundberg (40) holed a 40-foot birdie putt on the first play-off hole to pip local hero Bernd Wiesberger, claim his third Tour victory and end a six-year drought in Europe.

Simon Thornton was best of the Irish in a share of 14th on 14-under, worth, €14,700, after a 72.

Ruidhri McGee brought a splendid tournament to a disappointing conclusion with a 75 and had to settle for €9,500 in 25th. Michael Hoey was 48th on two-over after a 72 and earned €4,500.

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