PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – When Phil Mickelson made his birdie attempt from off the green on the opening hole Sunday, the gallery roared its approval. The fans were prepared to see Lefty charge.
They did the same every time Ernie Els or Tiger Woods made a move, creating a rumble of energy through Pebble Beach on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
By the end, those roars were reserved for unknown Graeme McDowell on the 18th green as the new U.S. Open champ. Lefty, Ernie and Tiger were nowhere to be found.
“It just wasn’t there. Other than the first six or seven holes, it just wasn’t there,” Mickelson said. “It got progressively tougher, the pins placements got progressively more difficult. And there just wasn’t the opportunities really for birdie.”
When third round leader Dustin Johnson faltered early bringing the likes of Els, Woods and Mickelson closer to the front, it was expected the champion would come from that group.
It had to. Pebble dictated it, seeing as the previous four Open champs at Pebble had the names Nicklaus, Watson, Kite and Woods.
But there was no repeat for Tiger, with faulty iron shots either finding the rough or landing in the wrong spots on the greens.
There was no third title for Els when after a strong start, he was forced to his knees on a grassy cliff to search for his ball.
And there was no first Open crown for Mickelson with makable birdie putts skittering past on the holes vulnerable to scoring at Pebble.
McDowell’s final round of 3-over 74 had the consistency that Woods, Els and Mickelson lacked. He shot even par on the front nine, then withstood Pebble’s treacherous back nine with his hard fairways, firm greens and tucked pins.
Even McDowell was surprised to see the name challenging him on the leaderboard over the finally few holes was that of Frenchman Gregory Havret, not one of the big three.
“I was surprised that Gregory Havret was the guy closest to me. No disrespect to Gregory, he’s a great player, but when you have Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els obviously there, you’re not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you’ve got to fend off,” McDowell said.
Els made the biggest charge. The South African who last won an Open title in 1997, birdied three of his first six holes to reach 3 under and move into a tie for the lead. He saved par with a testy putt at the eighth, but then let his round slip away over the next three holes.
Els bogeyed the ninth, then hit his drive into the long grass on the cliffside of the 10th. While folks on the beach watched from below, Els finally found his ball, only to hit his third shot into the long grass around the green. His double bogey dropped Els back to even par, followed by bogeys at Nos. 11, 14 and 17.
Woods couldn’t mount a charge either. A day after making five birdies and shooting 31 on the back nine, Woods’ bogeys at Nos. 10 and 12 only amplified his bogeys earlier in the round at Nos. 1, 4, 6 and 8. The 4-over 75 by Woods was his second-highest final round in a major.
Asked if he was surprised a marquee player wasn’t going home champion, Woods said he believes the most open championship in golf now caters to more of the field.
“Because of what (USGA’s) Mike (Davis) has done with the setup. He’s given more guys the chance to win the golf tournament,” Woods said. “It’s more open now. With the graduated rough, being firm and fast like this, it brings a lot more players into play who have a chance to win.”
Mickelson’s day started the best with his birdie at the first, yet he could never find the putting touch. He missed a short birdie chances at Nos. 2 and 3, three-putted for par on the fourth and had to scramble to make par on the par 5 sixth.
By the time Mickelson reached the difficult cliffs of Nos. 8, 9 and 10, and a back nine where Mickelson was 3 over on Sunday, his chances at making a serious charge were gone.
“I had opportunities. I had a 15-foot eagle putt on 4, and I make par. That was frustrating. I have a 5-iron into 6, and I make par. That was frustrating,” Mickelson said. “But at the turn, I was still under for my round. … All I had to do was shoot even par in the back, and I’m in a playoff. I wasn’t able to do it, obviously, it was tough.”