Sunday 19 November 2017

McDowell resists Mickelson magic to hold halfway lead

Dermot Gilleece on the Monterey Peninsula

With challengers facing the ultimate cauldron, Graeme McDowell, the halfway leader at Pebble Beach, received a ringing endorsement as a potential winner of the 110th US Open. Of special significance was that it came from Padraig Harrington, who had observed first-hand a stunning second-round performance from Phil Mickelson.

"It was the best I've ever seen Phil play," said the Dubliner. "As easy a 66 as you'll ever see." Yet a few minutes later, Harrington said unhesitatingly: "I honestly think Graeme can win. He's very confident when he's leading and has proved he can win from the front. And there's not a lot of people you can say that about."

This is developing into quite a productive championship for the Irish, even if two of the original five challengers, Rory McIlroy and amateur Kevin Phelan, have departed the scene. McIlroy's failure, three strokes outside the seven-over-par qualifying mark of 149, came as something of a shock, given the high expectations spawned by a stunning victory last month at Quail Hollow.

As I watched him leave the venue early on Friday afternoon for a flight home that evening, not even a cheery smile and a nod of his curly mop could hide his deep disappointment. And the hurt would have been accentuated by the remarkable performance of 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who was tied second at the halfway stage, two strokes behind McDowell.

Clearly, too much relevance was attributed to McIlroy's 10th place finish at Bethpage Black last year, when sodden conditions couldn't have been further removed from the fiery firmness of Pebble Beach.

Steve McLennan, the erstwhile head professional at Pebble, claimed there wasn't really any mystery to their course preparation. "We just mow the greens and let the rough grow," he said. "When it gets so that only a couple of guys on our staff can break 80, it's ready."

Tiger Woods, who will not be repeating his 15-stroke mauling of the opposition in the Millennium staging here, spoke of "awful", bumpy greens after an opening 74 on Thursday. A 72 on Friday, however, left him less critical of a course he loves so well.

Would the weekend be all the more difficult in view of his exploits of 10 years ago? Quite the opposite, he replied. In fact it would be "very easy". Why so? "Well, I'm right there in the championship. I just need to make a few more birdies, a few more putts on the weekend."

McDowell, who carded 11 birdies over the first two rounds, is mentally strong enough not to be intimidated by such comments, even from the world number one. As he put it: "There's a lot of other guys who feel they can win this weekend, but I intend to give myself every opportunity."

The recent Wales Open winner, who was partnered by big-hitting Dustin Johnson in the final pairing yesterday, went on: "I feel I know this golf course well, so I don't think they can throw any surprises at me. I've taken my time in analysing it and if I can execute my game plan to the desired degree, I'll be right there."

According to Harrington, who had Matt Kuchar as a third-round partner, the Ryder Cup at Valhalla marked a crucial milestone in McDowell's burgeoning career. "That was a big step for him," said the Dubliner. "He performed when he had to. That's what he's going to have to do this weekend."

For his own part, Harrington acknowledged he would have to go seriously low at least once over the weekend to have a chance of contending. But Mickelson had shown him it was possible.

Meanwhile, Gareth Maybin's survival in his first Major championship, was a marvellous story of success snatched from seeming failure. While surveying a 15-foot eagle putt from the other side of the 18th hole, the leaderboard directly in front of him had McDowell on four-under for the championship with one hole to play.

So, even if he sank the putt, the 10-stroke rule couldn't save Maybin on seven-over-par. But he had the nerve to hole it anyway. Then, a few minutes later, McDowell three-putted the ninth, his last hole, to guarantee survival for his fellow Ulsterman.

"This is priceless for me as a learning experience," said the 29-year-old. "To know I could contend in my first Major at Pebble Beach is a terrific boost. With experience, I now know I can get a result from one of these if I bring my game. That's a huge step."

Sunday Independent

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