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McDowell enjoys first taste of new Beach life

By Karl MacGinty

Conspiracy theorists believe Pebble Beach is set up for Phil Mickelson. Yeah right! What are they going to do? Drain that big pond which runs all 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 readily understands how this legendary ‘links' will play right into the hands of the US Masters champ.

Or anyone else with a Picasso touch around the greens — like 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 which used make the US Open the most mind-numbingly difficult of the four Major Championships.

For example, Davis, whose own experience as a three-handicap golfer left him with decidedly more liberal tendencies and empathy with the elite golf professional than his predecessors, 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 which ensured that a narrow miss would not be punished as severely as a bad wide.

Indeed, those who hit the wildest shots of all 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 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, hybrids and stuff.

“In and around the greens, however, some of the stuff is brutal and you can get in mega-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 — very small sloping greens. You've just got to know where you're missing them.

“Yet the golf course also offers a few chances. I like what I see out there,” added McDowell, for whom life must seem especially good right now after he'd notched his fifth victory on the European Tour with a spectacular 64, 63 finish at Celtic Manor the weekend before last.

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

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

It was good to have Pete out there working with me today. We were talking about little dink shots and the different lies you're going to have around the greens,” explained McDowell.

As the Ulsterman, his coach and caddie Ken Comboy toiled, they still paused every so often to smell the roses … or, in this instance, the fresh ocean breeze which kept temperatures on the sun-bathed links so refreshingly cool, a light mist constantly rose 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, while the US Open really is as good as it gets,” he sighed. “It makes you realize 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 I-pod, watching every gut-wrenching step as Robert Garrigus gave the tournament away like a latter day Jean Van de Velde with an horrific treble-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 fellow European Robert Karlsson on the fourth hole of sudden death. The unfortunate Garrigus bowed out at the first playoff hole.

Back to the tee at the famous par-three 17th they went half an hour later, offering a friendly welcome-aboard Hunter Mahan and his caddie. The American 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 4-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 50 per cent 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 a few minutes later when the Irishman tried to bite a little too much off the Pacific with his tee shot at the last and failed to deliver a birdie four.

Mahan left them at the final green with a polite good luck, play well and goodbye, while the cackle and 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 genuinely 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 winter … 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.l Rathmore’s Alan Dunbar opened his Amateur Championship challenge with a three under 68 at North Berwick yesterday to lie in a share of third place overnight.

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