McDowell proves he is more than a mentor to McIlroy
A West Coast major in Ryder Cup year; must be time for Graeme McDowell to put his hand up.
When the list of candidates most likely to succeed at the US Open in San Francisco was drawn up, McDowell was not the foremost Ulsterman topping it. Yet it was he and not Rory McIlroy drilling a 10-footer at the last on Saturday to claim a place in the final group. Irrespective of outcomes on what promised to be a gripping final day, McDowell had already made his presence felt.
His occupation of the front page of the leaderboard at the Olympic Club evoked his rise to prominence two years ago down the California coast at Pebble Beach, where his shock victory at the US Open marked the beginning of a remarkable march into the British sporting consciousness. Three months later he was topping the bill on the Celtic Manor balcony alongside captain Monty after sinking the putt that won the Ryder Cup for Europe.
McDowell, often cast as McIlroy's mentor-in-chief, is much more than that. Though he accepts the characterisation with his usual easy charm, one sensed in San Francisco how delighted he was to be talking about his own game as the tournament entered the business end of the week. He is the polar opposite of McIlroy, a quiet accumulator with a loud personality, adept at picking a route through golfing minefields as opposed to blowing a course apart.
The United States Golf Association somehow managed to elicit some drama on Saturday from a course set-up that does not support it. Tiger Woods fell marginally the wrong side of providence and by the close was looking increasingly ragged. David Toms, who came into the weekend with a share of the lead alongside Woods and Jim Furyk, also fell back. Into the space vacated by Woods slipped McDowell to set out alongside Furyk, a winner of this event at Olympia Fields nine years ago and with whom he shared the first two rounds.
The pair enjoyed a two-shot lead over Fredrik Jacobsen and then came the golfing heavy mob, including Lee Westwood and a resurgent Ernie Els at two over par and Martin Kaymer and Woods at four over. As the tournament entered its climax outcomes would be determined as much by the mind as the hands, arms and legs, as McDowell acknowledged. "I remember two years ago at Pebble, Saturday being a really difficult day for me, mentally and emotionally. This was the same. As I was getting ready to come to the golf course I felt a little nervous and anxious and really kind of not sure how the day was going to go.
"I spent a little time with my caddie and my team just kind of talking about what we were trying to achieve and got my head screwed back on again and realised I was trying to position for tomorrow. And really trying to go out and execute my game plan, get in a relaxed frame of mind and give myself an opportunity to play tomorrow and maybe have a chance to win. I was happy that I got myself emotionally in the right place. Probably for the first time all week I actually enjoyed the round of golf."
The putt and the round of the penultimate day were compiled by Westwood, who rolled in a 40-footer at the last for a 67 to claim the spot alongside Jacobson in yesterday's penultimate group. This was Westwood at his best revelling in the contest and looking increasingly at home in the American environment. Whether at 39 this was to be the day he won his first major or not, he would not fail for want of bottle or belief.
The American experience is about to acquire semi-permanence for Westwood as he prepares to move his family to a Florida base after Christmas. It is a departure designed to maximise his opportunities in major championships as he enters his 40s. After a circumspect opening two days he exploded into this championship with another demonstration of precision driving and laser iron play. As he made his way to the first yesterday one sensed he was one good round with the putter from a special Father's Day.