McDowell roared into Pebble Beach fresh from another victory, in Wales, but his first-round 71, which left him two strokes off the lead, was little noticed as Woods made his long-awaited return to Pebble Beach. At the 2000 U.S. Open he had smashed numerous records en route to a 15-stroke victory. Those four days a decade ago remain the most dominant golf of Woods's career, so this visit to Pebble Beach was a chance to assess just how far he has fallen. In the run-up to the Open, Woods had repeatedly downplayed comparisons, but once he arrived at Pebble he appeared flummoxed trying to live up to his own impossible standards. He did a slow boil throughout a torturous, birdieless 74 on Thursday. (He had opened in 2000 with a bogeyless 65.) Afterward, while awaiting a TV interview, a frustrated Woods mumbled under his breath, "mother------." More out of character was his moaning about the bumpiness of the greens. Jack Nicklaus used to say that he loved to hear other players whining about the conditions at a major championship because he knew they were already beaten mentally.
Woods played the next morning on greens that McDowell, in the same early wave, described as "very pure," so Tiger was out of excuses for a ragtag 72 that left him in 25th place, seven back of the Ulsterman, who shot a 68. (Ten years ago Woods's 69 propelled him six strokes ahead at the midway point.) In the ensuing edition of the Monterey Herald, WOODS POSTS FIRST BIRDIE was the headline, because it was indeed newsworthy.
Typical of his subtle mind games between the world's two best players, Mickelson went out of his way to praise the greens, saying that his maddening first-round 75, during which he hit two balls into the Pacific and also failed to make a birdie, was the result of poor putting. But Mickelson is as unpredictable as the Pebble weather, and he responded on Friday with a flawless 66 to surge into a tie for second, two strokes behind McDowell. "Certainly it was the best I've ever seen him play," said playing partner Padraig Harrington. "It was as easy a 66 as you'll ever see."
Phil being Phil, his third round featured three balls dumped into the oceanside hazard and he needed what he called various "salty" up-and-downs to salvage a 73. He reluctantly ceded the spotlight to Woods, who had begun his round with soft bogeys on the 2nd and 3rd holes to free-fall to six over par. The instant verdict—in the pressroom, on Twitter and elsewhere—was that his tournament was over. But then the damnedest thing happened: Tiger Woods turned into Tiger Woods. Postscandal, his golf has been meek and unsteady and he has often had mopey body language and a faraway look in his eyes. Three birdies in a row beginning on the 4th hole changed all that. Woods's fist pumps became more demonstrative, and in turn the crowd throatier. On the par-4 13th hole Tiger did a familiar cocky twirl of his club even before his ball almost hit the flagstick. After that birdie putt dropped, the whole course seemed to tilt in his direction. A big-breaking birdie putt on 16 brought the biggest fist pump of 2010. At the par-5 18th, from 260 yards out, he carved a three-wood around a tree, over the ocean and onto the green, the most macho shot Woods has hit this season.
And yet Johnson matched Woods's 66 blow for blow. The signature moment was when Johnson made eagle by driving the uphill 290-yard par-4 4th hole—with a three-iron. Johnson took a two-stroke lead to the 18th tee and promptly whipped out his driver, leading to an on-air scolding by NBC's Johnny Miller, who favored a more conservative play on the watery par-5. As it turned out, Johnson blasted his drive well past the lurking trees and bunkers down the right side and had only a six-iron in, which he deftly placed on the left side of the green, leading to one last birdie. "Ol' Johnny hit it about 210 off the tee in his prime," woofed Allen Terrell, Johnson's coach at Coastal Carolina. "He simply doesn't understand the game Dustin is playing."
But it was Johnson's pedal-to-the-metal style that led to his implosion on Sunday. McDowell seized control of the tournament by opening with seven pars and a birdie and effectively playing prevent defense the rest of the way. Unlike previous Opens at Pebble there was no defining moment or iconic shot, but McDowell was making no apologies for being the last man standing. His father claims the best whiskey in the world is made outside of Portrush, in the village of Bushmills; Graeme is more of a Guinness man. Either way, the new U.S. Open champ said on Sunday evening, "There might be a few beverages consumed from this trophy this week. Goodness knows when I'm going to sober up. I can't make any promises there."
After such a wild, demoralizing final round, the men McDowell beat at Pebble Beach will probably be driven to drink too.
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