McDowell looks to emulate Hogan as past meets present
Ulsterman hotly tipped to replicate great man's Merion glory and reclaim US Open on tight, old-fashioned layout, says James Corrigan
If, as Graeme McDowell imagined, Ben Hogan was "rolling in his grave" at his impersonation last week, then so many other golfing champions were rolling up to tip the Ulsterman to replicate the great man's Merion glory.
Darren Clarke, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie identified McDowell as possessing all the attributes needed to win his second US Open this week. Merion will require accuracy and heart, but more than anything, McDowell prays that just like any 'museum', Merion will require respect.
"I hope the conditions there in Philadelphia are fast and firm and that the rains don't arrive to make it soft and very scoreable," McDowell said. "The USGA have been brave in taking it back to an old-school layout after such a long break. And it would be a shame if the modern pros butchered it."
Wouldn't it just. If a big-hitter goes deep into double digits under par and thus emasculates the game's most macho Major, the USGA's gamble in returning to this sub 7,000-yard layout after 32 years will have been viewed as a failure. Merion would thus be reconsigned to the history books and, for those weeping traditionalists who continued to make the pilgrimage, it would survive as a monument to the ravages of technology.
In this regard, this US Open is more than a mere tournament, but is, as former USGA executive director David Fay put it, "a referendum on the distance issue". There is no doubt which way McDowell would vote.
"The game shouldn't just be about distance," McDowell said. "Of course it's exciting to see this new power-packed breed come along, who first learn to hit it a long way and then concentrate on the accuracy afterwards.
"But the US Open is about testing every aspect of the golf game. And if Mother Nature obliges, Merion will do so and stage a great US Open. It'll be a unique place in Major golf in so many ways."
That much is evident from the very first tee, which sits so tightly next to the clubhouse it could well be carpeted. "You've literally got a bar and restaurant four feet from you," McDowell said.
"There we'll be, all very serious, opening our challenge in the first round of the US Open and right next to us will be patrons with cold beers in their hands. It's going to be interesting – there's not a lot of room out there. Spectators are going to have to stay seated. There won't be a lot of movement."
The USGA have been forced to limit the numbers to 25,000 and concede they may even make a loss on the week. As Merion is stitched into a surburban area and occupies an area approximately half the size of usual Major venues, there is an obvious – some would venture 'blessed' – lack of corporate opportunities. The rarity will not end there, however.
Merion does not have flags at the top of the pins, but wicker baskets. Every half-hour the bells ring out from St George's Episcopal Church, which happens to be little more than 100 yards from the sixth green – and, yes, the campanologists will keep pulling even if Tiger Woods is standing over a tricky five-footer. Private lawns could collect the mildest hook. This will be, as USGA chief executive Mike Davis said, "the boutique US Open". The past will meet the present, the culture will invade the circus. "It'll be fantastic," McDowell said. "It's a great little course."
McDowell is not only talking as a purist, but as a selfish athlete. This son of Portrush is in his element when the elements are driving the others to distraction. He proved so at Pebble Beach three years ago when, with thoroughbreds such as Woods and Ernie Els looming, he kept his head.
"For some reason I've always been good at getting into the mindset where par is a great score; I love the grind, love the fact that even if you make a few bogeys you're only six or seven pars away from being back on the right side of a decent score," he said.
"You have to realise what you are, who you are, and I'm not a man who can move it 350 yards and dismantle the golf course, like a Rory McIlroy. But I will play a tough course well, when it's all about fairways and greens and scrambling."
His record vehemently backs up his claim. McDowell's last four US Opens have seen him finish T2, T13, 1st and T18. Last year at the Olympic club in San Francisco, McDowell had a 25-footer on the 18th to take Webb Simpson to a play-off. He missed, fell one short and went away counting up the errors. "My bunker play cost me that championship," he said. "I decided to do something about it."
In his extended close season, as he settled into his new Orlando residence with his soon-to-be-wife Kristin Stape, McDowell went to work on his short game. "I'd become obsessed with perfection, obsessed with technique," he said.
"I retaught myself how just to walk up to the ball, see the shot and let my mind tell my body what moves to make. I trusted the visuals again."
The effect has been staggering. From being 177th on the PGA Tour's scrambling charts he is now first. Only Woods has won more events this year and even McDowell's recent setbacks seem to make him yet more of an attractive betting proposition. Since the Masters he has gone win, missed cut, win, missed cut.
"I'm happy sitting out every other weekend, if it means picking up silverware every other Sunday," McDowell said. "I'm in a good place and am excited about Merion. The way I see the course is in three stages. The first six are tricky, the middle seven you can score on if you're in the fairway, while the last five are just brutal. The 15th is probably one of the hardest tee-shots you'll ever see."
But it is three holes later where history will intervene to put up its own hurdle. Of all Merion's vintage memories, that picture of Hogan stands out.
"I hit my Sunday best and I was right at the Hogan plate, which is probably what they're going for there with the new tee," McDowell said. "I hit a four-iron; Hogan was rolling in his grave. No, my swing isn't in the same league."
Maybe not, but it takes all sorts. As Merion will try its best to remind us.