By Jeff Babineau, Golfweek
SAN FRANCISCO – A generation ago, when you thought about players whose games were built for the U.S. Open, the names rolled off the tongue. You had Hale Irwin. Curtis Strange. Payne Stewart. Oh, and there was that Nicklaus guy, too.
They shared common traits, which included driving it on a string and showing some fortitude. Jack Nicklaus, a four-time U.S. Open champion, was lucky enough to have a high ball in the arsenal, too, which always came in handy when greens became firmer than a granite tabletop.
Sturdy U.S. Open players of modern times? Let’s see. Tiger Woods and, um, well . . . not such a long, glorious list behind him.
Sure, there are guys who pop their heads into contention every now and again, but very few manage to do it with any level of true consistency. A Rory McIlroy, for instance, now boasts a U.S. record that reads: 10th-Cut-Win-Cut. He hits it long and he can hit it high, but does that record show a young man who will be a force every June? He’ll have to prove that.
Fans at the 112th U.S. Open the past two days were treated to something special: A threesome that included two men who would be on anyone’s short list of most dependable U.S. Open players of this era, and a third player who, with a little more mental strength, could join them.
Graeme McDowell, who won this championship the last time it was staged in Northern Cal (Pebble Beach, 2010), never has missed a cut in seven U.S. Open starts. He said being successful at an Open means adopting a simple formula: “You’ve got to play Jim Furyk golf.”
McDowell didn’t have to look very far to see the original model. McDowell (72) and Furyk (69), the 2003 U.S. Open champion, played alongside each other in a group that also included Sergio Garcia, a guy who has five top-12 finishes in this championship despite not always exhibiting the patience of his fellow competitors.
Of Furyk, McDowell said, “He doesn’t take chances he doesn’t have to take on. He gets it back in the fairways (when he drives it in the rough). He putts well. Holes out well. Takes his chances when it comes. And that’s my type of golf as well.”
For two days on a golf course that has been a chamber of horrors for others, Furyk and McDowell have dutifully mapped their way around Olympic Club’s Lake Course, and both will enter the weekend with a decent shot to add a second Open title. Furyk stands at 1 under 139; McDowell is two shots behind him. (Garcia shot 71 and stands 4 over, very much in the mix.)
We’ll avoid using the word “plodders” in referring to Furyk and McDowell because McDowell said he finds the term disrespectful. That’s fine. Getting into contention at a U.S. Open certainly goes beyond slogging through thick mud.
On Friday, it was almost as if Furyk and McDowell were playing chess while most of the field played checkers. The only “trouble” encountered was when McDowell dropped three shots in his last four holes. To watch them is to see nothing that’s otherworldly spectacular, but it’s a display of wise shots and calculated misses that simply remove big numbers from entering the equation. Here, blue collar works.
U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis said he wanted Friday’s course conditions to mimic those of Thursday, when Olympic seemed to flip a switch and suddenly get firm and fast on the field. In that regard, the course doled out the same amount of misery. Even with the usual harsh winds all but lying down, scoring was quite difficult, and red numbers were few.
“My day was as equally unenjoyable as yesterday,” quipped McDowell. “…To be honest with you, if you’d have offered me 1 over par starting on the first tee yesterday, having seen what I saw yesterday morning, I probably would have snapped your arm off for it.”
Furyk is a gritty, fairways-and-greens machine who is competing in his 18th Open. At age 42, who knows how many times he’ll have such a good opportunity to win his national championship. This is the first time he’s been in the real heat of the weekend at an Open since it was played in his home state of Pennsylvania, at Oakmont, five years ago. That year he tied for second, his second consecutive runner-up finish.
The only thing about the first two days that soured him were a couple of poor holes with the putter coming in late Thursday in his first round. Otherwise, he said he was “obviously happy,” which is a phrase not heard all too frequently at an Open. Furyk’s tee-to-green game is usually very steady, and success can rely heavily on the short stick, which hasn’t been his strongest suit the past couple seasons. Here at Olympic, he seems to be putting quite well. He ran in a 30-foot putt from off the front of No. 3 for a birdie and nearly holing a similar putt to try to save par at the fifth hole, where an errant drive was swatted down by a tree.
It helps at Olympic that a player needs to work the ball both ways off the tee, which Furyk can do, and he’s never going to stray too far off the slim ribbon fairways. At the U.S. Open, steady often wins the race.
“I guess you have to realize at the U.S. Open that par is a really good score, and you’re going to make some bogeys,” Furyk said. “And when I’m patient and I’m playing well, I’ve had some success here. … Mentally you have to be in a good frame of mind, and physically you have to be on top of a lot of areas of your game. But keeping the ball in the fairway is of the utmost importance. When I playing well, I do a good job of those things.”
Many big names already have departed Olympic. And two modern-day U.S. Open stalwarts named Furyk and McDowell are right where they want to be. Again.