Friday 23 March 2018

Pebble paradise not lost on McDowell

CONSPIRACY theorists reckon Pebble Beach is set up for Phil Mickelson. Yeah right! What are they going to do? Drain that big pond which runs down the left of 18, perhaps?

Sure, Mickelson, with his record five second places, has cried himself a river at the US Open, so the least they could do is dry out an ocean for him.

In reality, nobody has set out to do anybody any favours in the set-up of the course for the US Open.

Yet those who've already seen the way Pebble Beach is playing in practice understand how this legendary links will play right into the hands of the US Masters champion. Or anyone else with a Picasso touch around the greens, such as Padraig Harrington in his pomp.

These are more enlightened times at the US Open. Since Mike Davis took over as senior director of rules and competition at the United States Golf Association in 2006, the belts have been loosened on the straitjacket that used make the US Open the most mind-numbingly difficult of the four Majors.

For example, Davis is responsible for introducing graduated rough at the US Open. Between the fairway and the bottomless, cloying rough for which this championship is famous, he introduced a modest six-foot buffer zone that ensured a narrow miss would not be punished as severely as a bad wide.

Indeed, those who hit the wildest shots often would benefit from a decent lie on grass stamped down by spectators. Where was the justice in that, Davis wondered, and set out to do something about it.

He did not labour in vain, if one is to judge by the comments of Ireland's Graeme McDowell after he played his first practice round of the week in idyllic conditions at Pebble Beach on Sunday.


"I like what I see out there," said the Portrush man. "It's very much a second-shot golf course. They've actually kept it quite easy off the tee. You only hit about five or six drivers out there. The rest of the time you are positioning with three-woods and hybrids.

"In and around the greens, however, some of the stuff is brutal and you can get in mega trouble. It just puts your iron game under a lot of pressure. You're going to be facing a lot of four, five and six-irons to small targets -- small sloping greens. You've just got to know where you're missing them. Yet the golf course also offers a few chances."

It's a measure of the 30-year-old's ever-increasing ambition that, after a 24-hour stop-off in Portrush to celebrate his recent success at Celtic Manor with family and friends, McDowell headed for his house on the Lake Nona resort in Florida for several days work with his swing coach and short-game guru Pete Cowen.

Cowen accompanied McDowell and caddie Ken Comboy on his practice round last Sunday, and they spent at least 10 minutes at each green working out how best to deal with the tangled lies in the rough.

As the Ulsterman, his coach and caddie toiled, they still paused to smell the roses or, in this instance, the fresh ocean breeze that kept temperatures on the sun-bathed links so refreshingly cool, a light mist constantly rising off its fairways and greens.

A day like this at Pebble Beach is borrowed from paradise and, refreshingly, how well McDowell knows it.

"Sometimes you are out here and you feel you should pinch yourself because you are playing one of the best golf courses on the planet and in one of the most beautiful places on earth," he said. "It makes you realise how lucky you are to have such a great job."

And what a job these guys have. You could hear the laughter wafting across the fairway as the group was joined by English caddie Phil 'Wobbly' Morbey, doing a 'recce' for his boss Soren Hansen. Then Henrik Stenson, carrying only a putter, hooked up with them.

They kept in touch with unfolding events at the St Jude Championship, two time zones away in Memphis, on McDowell's iPod, watching every gut-wrenching step as Robert Garrigus gave the tournament away like a latter day Jean Van de Velde with a horrific triple-bogey seven at the final hole.

"Sometimes, this can be a very cruel game," murmured Stenson, shaking his head.

When McDowell's batteries ran out on the 16th hole, they made a quick dash for the plush Beach Club nearby to see Lee Westwood prevail over Robert Karlsson on the fourth hole of sudden death. The unfortunate Garrigus bowed out at the first play-off hole.

Half-an-hour later, they went back to the tee at the famous par-three 17th, offering a friendly welcome-aboard to Hunter Mahan and his caddie. The US Ryder Cup star smiled quietly as the European banter continued.

"Twenty bucks says you won't make a three," Wobbly challenged as McDowell reached for his rescue club, and the Irishman picked-up the gauntlet with glee, handing his American Express card to stake-holder Cowen in lieu of cash.

Silence descended as McDowell returned the hybrid club to the bag and drew his four-iron instead. It was 208 yards to the pin, into the gentle breeze, but McDowell's ball skipped through the putting surface and into the tangled rough at the back.

Yet in keeping with his confident boast that his short game has become 50pc better under Cowen's tutelage, McDowell chipped adroitly to two feet, made the putt and took the cash.

For a guy who'd won €360,000 in Wales, McDowell took an inordinate amount of pleasure in putting that crisp $20 bill into his wallet, though it'd be back in Morbey's possession minutes later when the Irishman failed to deliver a birdie four at the last.

Mahan left them at the final green with a polite good luck and goodbye, while the craic continued as McDowell, Wobbly and Comboy headed for the latter's hire car and on to dinner in Carmel.

The player himself is staying in the plush Monterey Plaza Hotel on famous Cannery Row. The old noise and smell of the fish factory, depicted by John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel of the same name, has long been replaced by the rattle of cash registers as tourists pack in like sardines. Yet the glory of 17-Mile Drive, with the ocean gleaming on one side and a spectacular necklace of golf courses, cypress trees and opulent mansions on the other, is as beautiful as ever.

McDowell has played February's AT&T "three or four times" so he knows how cold, wet and savage Pebble Beach can be in early spring -- yet there's no fairer place on the planet on a sun-splashed summer's day.

And 'fair' will be the operative word on the links this week, giving a tough, resolute in-fighter like McDowell as much right as Mickelson to dream of US Open glory.

Irish Independent

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