The driving range on a Sunday afternoon at a U.S. Open is a strangely optimistic place, as the players engage in a kind of collective denial of the horrors that are to come. In the buildup to the final round of our 110th national championship, played last week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Tiger Woods couldn't help but smile when he received a standing ovation just for arriving on the practice tee. The fans were hoping to recapture the energy of the day before when Woods had reinvented himself with a 66 that propelled him to third place. One stroke back of Tiger was his old foil Ernie Els of South Africa, who was discussing various World Cup developments in between carefree swings. Phil Mickelson was in the mix too, tied for sixth, a stroke behind Els. No one knows better than Mickelson how brutally unforgiving the Open can be, but in the minutes before his reckoning—a 1:55 tee time—he was his usual jaunty self. Leaving the range Mickelson was asked what a 65 might do for him. "Same thing it did for Arnold," he crowed, a nod to Palmer's famous final-round charge to victory at Cherry Hills a half century ago.
Phil, Tiger and Ernie accounted for all of the one-name star power, but the most intriguing range rat was Dustin Johnson, who was effortlessly smashing one perfect drive after another with his vortex-inducing swing. The day before, Johnson, 25, had fired a 66 to build a three-stroke lead. It was the kind of overpowering, game-changing performance that immediately drew comparisons with Woods, circa April 1997. Johnson's friend Steve Flesch, a longtime PGA Tour veteran, offered this by way of text message: "Dustin is probably the most athletic, fearless and supremely talented player on Tour today. He has all the elements to become a dominant player."
If Johnson was feeling pressure to live up to those kinds of expectations it didn't show, as between bombs he was yukking it up with his caddie and with his new swing coach, Butch Harmon. "He looks real tight, doesn't he?" Harmon said, addressing a couple of reporters.
Finding comfort on the driving range is a purely physical act, but the final round of the Open is the ultimate mental test, an 18-hole stress fest designed to push players to the breaking point. However loosey-goosey the protagonists had appeared at the range, they were overmatched once they set foot on a firm and fast Pebble Beach. Woods bogeyed half of his first 12 holes as every part of his game betrayed him. Afterward, golf's ultimate winner was left with only moral victories. "I felt like I put some pieces together this week," Woods said. "It's a long process."
Making the turn, Mickelson was even par for the tournament—what would ultimately be Graeme McDowell's winning score—but he played the back nine in a three-over 39, failing to make a birdie in the final 17 holes. Five times an Open runner-up, Mickelson was forced to find gallows humor in his fourth-place tie: "I'm glad it wasn't a second." Els was tied for the lead standing on the 7th tee, but he dumped two shots in the hazard at the 10th hole en route to a double bogey and then staggered home with three more bogeys.
These were bruising missed opportunities for players who each, for very personal reasons, craved this Open, but Johnson's demise easily came with the most pathos. After a perfect drive on the par-4 2nd hole his fanned approach shot hung up in the long fescue that framed a greenside bunker. With no stance he was forced to turn his wedge upside down and gouge the ball out lefthanded. He followed with a near whiff from the rough and a blown four-footer, taking a stunning triple bogey that threw the final round into disarray. Arriving on the tee of the sharply doglegged, par-4 3rd hole, the hyperaggressive Johnson instinctively pulled his driver out of the bag. He yanked his tee shot way left and the ball was lost in a hazard, leading to a double bogey. Recklessly, Johnson then tried to drive the par-4 4th hole and promptly dumped his ball into Stillwater Cove. In four holes he had hit for the cycle: par, triple bogey, double bogey, bogey. Johnson's coronation would have to wait, and he spent the next 14 holes in a glassy-eyed daze, ultimately signing for an 82 that was the worst final round by a 54-hole U.S. Open leader since Fred McCloud's 83 in 1911.
An hour after the death march had finally, mercifully, ended, Johnson was still trying to make sense of what had befallen him. "It's hard to describe the feeling," he said in his soft South Carolina drawl. "My head was spinning a little, for sure. You're trying to forget about what's just happened and keep going, but it's hard to do. My approach shot on number 2, it could've easily fallen back into the bunker. If it does, it's a totally different golf tournament." He paused, searching for answers. "It was just a crazy, crazy day out there. And not just for me."
At a tournament that is destined to be remembered for who lost it, the winner turned out to be an amiable lad from Northern Ireland who made only one birdie on Sunday—at the 5th—and played the final 10 holes in four over par but still stumbled across the finish line a stroke ahead of Gregory Havret of France, the 391st-ranked player in the world, who bogeyed three of the final 11 holes, naturally. McDowell, 30, is the first European to take the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and afterward he sounded as if he could hardly believe his good fortune. "I bogeyed 9 and 10, I looked up at the leader board and I was surprised to be two ahead, I really was," McDowell said. "And 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 there, you're not expecting Gregory Havret to be the guy you've got to fend off."
McDowell's bluntness is only one of his winning traits. He grew up in the shadow of famed Royal Portrush Golf Club, but his family did not have the means to be members. Instead Graeme and his two brothers played at Rathmore, what their father, Kenny, describes as a "workingman's club." After studying engineering and playing a little golf for Queens College in Belfast, McDowell somehow came to the attention of the coaches at Alabama-Birmingham. By his third season there, 2002, McDowell was national player of the year. He turned pro that summer and won his sixth start on the European tour, the Scandinavian Masters, much to the delight of his mother, Marian. "He always told her he was going to buy her a new house with his first check, and he did," says Kenny.
McDowell matured into one of Europe's most reliable ball strikers, and an emphasis on upgrading his short game led to a breakthrough year in 2008, when he won the Scottish Open and a big-money event in South Korea and then displayed a killer instinct in his first Ryder Cup. Again he was happy to share his good fortune. "He retired me the week he won the Scottish Open," says Kenny, a former computer technician at a middle school. "He said he wanted to have me out on tour with him more. We've had a great time seeing the world together."