SAN FRANCISCO -The U.S. Open isn’t always about sizzle.
Just when we thought we had witnessed the rebirth of Tiger Woods, he reminded us that he was only halfway there. On the verge of anointing him with his 15th career major, Woods showed his vulnerability.
Instead of sexy and trendy today, we’ve got a big scoop of vanilla with Jim Furyk locked into a third round lead with Irishman Graeme McDowell, who might just pour a pint of cold Guinness on the final round at the diabolical Olympic Club.
Furyk and McDowell enter the final stage tied at 1-under-par 209 with a host of capable pursuers including Fredrik Jacobson, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, and eight others within four shots of history. Woods, who said he’s not out of it after posting the second-worst score (75) of the top 47 golfers Saturday, would require a miraculous round on a well-fortified course that surrendered only 13 sub-par rounds (compared to 26 in the third round last year at Congressional).
Clearly six bogeys weren’t in Tiger’s game plan Saturday. Only worse was David Toms, who began the day with a share of the lead with Furyk and Woods. His 76 took him out of contention unless the rest of the leader board gets lost in the San Francisco fog on the way to the club today.
Furyk, who was described by McDowell the day before in the most complimentary way as a “plodder,” accepted that analysis after his even-par 70 just before the California sunset.
“I think basically on a golf course like this it doesn’t have to look or be fancy,” said Furyk. “That’s the kind of golf that’s usually played at a U.S. Open.”
In that case, perhaps we should all go bet the house on Jimmy Vanilla. While McDowell, his adrenaline fueled by a round-closing birdie, nearly sprinted up the steep staircase that leads from the 18th green to the Spanish-styled Olympic clubhouse, Furyk took his time.
Maybe it’s his age. Furyk, 42, is 10 years older than McDowell. But maybe that’s just his style.
While excitement was written all over McDowell’s face, media had to actually ask Furyk if he was excited.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “Different people show it different ways. I get more subdued and quiet when I’m excited.”
McDowell was admittedly nervous before his round and required a 60-second refresher course with noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella of Charlottesville on the putting green before he approached the first tee. Once he settled down, escaping the treacherous first six holes bogey-free, things began to click.
Along the way he was encouraged by many of his native countrymen or transplanted ones to the Bay Area.
“There might be more Irishmen out here than there are in Ireland and I felt they kept me relaxed out there today,” McDowell grinned. “You know, plenty of reference to drinking Guinness and pints. People are stereotyping me. I don’t know what’s going on out there … kind of under some illusion I like a cold beer.”
With a U.S. Open (Pebble Beach) under his belt, McDowell said his emotions were more about the fear of messing up the whole thing prior to the start of the round and that’s where Rotella’s lessons and his mind-soothing caddy came into play.
He said he always remembered growing up reading Rotella’s book and the two fears we all have: fear of failure or fear of success.
“I only fear failure, really,” McDowell said.
“That was my basic fear, just scared of going out there and messing up,” he continued. “I guess just talking to my team, I realized there’s probably 71 other guys feeling the same way and 84 guys who’ve already messed it up. It puts in in perspective a little bit.”
During that brief meeting with Rotella on Saturday, McDowell did all the talking because he knew what Dr. Bob was going to say. He’s heard it before. Just needed reassuring.
The confidence, the adrenaline, whatever, led to a bogey-free back nine that included three birdies, including the 18th that sent him zooming up the steep Olympic Club stairs to sign his scorecard.
“You birdie the last and you seem to bounce up them for some reason,” McDowell said. “It was nice to finish in a little bit of style.”
Meanwhile, Tiger bogeyed 16 and 18 to add to his misery. No, he did not bounce up the steps in McDowellesque fashion.
Virginian Curtis Strange, the last man to win back-to-back Opens (1988, ’89), observed Woods’ round from a radio analyst viewpoint Saturday and suggested that Tiger was overdoing things due to changes in the swing.
“It’s almost like he’s playing by the numbers instead of using his God-given natural ability,” Strange said.
Woods has never come from behind in the final round to win a major but didn’t dismiss the possibility. Nor did the frontrunners who said that there’s a number of players capable, depending of course, on what the frontrunners actually do.
“There’s a bunch of people piled up and close to us,” Furyk said. “The course will take its effect on people. I saw a whole lot of the red numbers disappear early on those first six holes today.”
Olympic has been unforgiving for three punishing days, just like the USGA likes it. The USGA’s philosophy is that level par is the best score that should be reached in the U.S. Open and only two men, McDowell and Furyk, have bettered that after 54 holes, both standing at 1-under par. Everyone else is over.
Nine years to the day removed from his last U.S. Open crown, at Olympia Fields, Furyk said it seems like 15, but believes his style of play is well suited to bring home another title.
“I’m a plodder,” he joked. “My strengths are getting it in the fairway, getting the ball up-and-down and being tough mentally, being able to think my way around the golf course and missing in the right spots.”
Doesn’t sound too sexy, right?
Sometimes you’ve just got to appreciate the flavor vanilla … or Guinness.