Graeme McDowell grabs bull by horns to take lead at US Open
Graeme McDowell was sitting on top of the world last night after a superlative second round 68 sent the 30-year-old Ulsterman thundering into the early clubhouse lead at the US Open.
McDowell, the barrel-chested pride of Portrush, loped two strokes ahead of Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson and Japan's teenage sensation Ryo Ishikawas at the top of a stellar field as the second Major Championship of the season approach halfway.
“It's fantastic to lead the US Open at Pebble Beach, which has to be one of the most beautiful and prestigious golf courses in the world,” said a delighted McDowell, who has led a Major Championship before after shooting a first round 66 at The Open in Hoylake four years ago.
Yesterday's 68, which was matched only by Els among the early starters, left a host of the world's greatest players wallowing in McDowell's wake, not least Tiger Woods, who wallowed a clear seven strokes behind the Ulsterman on four-over after his second round 72.
McDowell traveled to California with such good form and soaring confidence, it came as no surprise to see him climb to the top of the US Open leaderboard.
McDowell trailed overnight leaders Paul Casey of England, Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge and his American playing companion Shaun Micheel by two strokes after a solid, if unspectacular, first round 71 in Thursday's blazing sunshine.
While the game's most famous players, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, both failed to land a single birdie on Thursday, McDowell had five on his card, consoling himself that a handful of bogeys, however frustrating, were the sort of collateral damage one can expect in the highly-volatile US Open arena.
“Playing a course like Pebble Beach when it's set-up for a US Open is like a really tough exam. It doesn't matter how well you've studied, it's always going to ask you questions you're not quite sure you've got the answers to,” he explained. “You're always going to hit it in a couple of positions and you've just got to take your medicine and get out of there.”
On Thursday evening, McDowell had said Pebble Beach looked and on occasion even felt like a links course back home and there were further resonances with his beloved Portrush yesterday morning as grey clouds and still, chill weather that could have been borrowed from an Irish summer.
Soft day thank God, we thought as we ambled along ‘The Cliffs of Doom' overlooking Carmel Bay — though McDowell was hardly in the mood for frivolity as he opened with bogey after planting his tee shot in a fairway bunker at the grueling, 495 yards 10th hole.
Indeed, there was a measure of satisfaction on the green there as the Irishman rolled home a teasing 10-foot putt for his five.
In keeping with recent hot form with his irons, McDowell hit an exquisite 9-iron very close for birdie at 12 but handed that shot back at 12 when he failed to get up and down from the front bunker at this 210 yards par three.
McDowell then received a mega-boost at 14, one of the most difficult par-fives in golf, when he rolled home a 30-foot putt for birdie — a real bonus, considering his recent assertion that he'd take your arm off if offered two-over not to play this 580-yards tester over the four days.
Now there was a real spring in McDowell's step. He'd go within inches holing-out with his approach to the par four 16th, settling for a birdie instead, and made a nice up-and-down birdie out of the greenside bunker at 18.
The Irishman joined the lead with a facile birdie at the fourth, a short par four, and put his nose in front at the par five sixth, where he chipped to seven feet from just short of the green and putted out with aplomb.
The only error on his imperious march down the Pebble Beach front nine came at one of the most feared holes on the course, the 505 yard ninth, where McDowell's approach landed at least 40 feet from the flag. His treacherous first putt rolled down the hill, a good 10 feet past the cup and he missed the one back.
Despite this tinge of frustration at the finish, McDowell looked so much in control of his game and his emotions yesterday, one got the distinct feeling that he's not going to be shifted easily at the weekend.
Gareth Maybin, the pride of Ballyclare Golf Club, also performed with distinction yesterday, landing a spectacular eagle at the talismanic 18th hole to hoist himself to seven over for 36 holes.
Maybin's prospects of playing at the weekend in his first Major Championship might now depend on McDowell staying in the clubhouse lead until the end of play, thereby qualifying him under the 10-stroke rule which applies at the US Open.
Sadly, Rory McIlroy punched out of the tournament on 10-over par after adding a hugely disappointing second round 77 to Thursday's 75.
Rubbing further salt in was the Holywood youngster's utter eclipse at the hands of his teenage playing companion Ryo Ishikawa who soared close to the top of the leaderboard on one-under after his second round 71.