McDowell moves into contention as holder McIlroy heads home


GOLF:HE KNOWS from recent history how to get the job done, and Graeme McDowell – who wrapped the US Open trophy in his arms hard by the Pacific Ocean coastline a few hundred miles further south just two years ago – stealthily manoeuvred his way into position to contend yet again in this 112th edition of the Major at storied Olympic Club in northern California yesterday.

And whilst Rory McIlroy, the world number two and his record-breaking successor as champion struggled with his game and disappointedly missed the cut, McDowell – sartorially dressed in the sort of pink trousers only those with tremendous self-belief and confidence can don – maintained his efforts to ensure the sequence of Northern Ireland winners could yet extend to three.

It was only at the end that McDowell’s round got away from him, as he bogeyed three of the last four for a 72 for 141, one over.

Jim Furyk shot a 69 to assume the midway lead on 139, one under par.

On a beautifully sunny day, with hardly a breath of wind coming in off the ocean, McDowell stubbornly stuck to his guns with a game plan based on patience.

Although Sergio Garcia, one of his playing partners, expressed his frustration at times with a diatribe in Spanish and even smashed a tee-side TV microphone with an iron as the course got inside his head, McDowell and Furyk, the other player in the three-ball, stoically stuck to the task.

“It’s just tough to have fun out there, I got to be honest with you. It’s just a brutal test of golf,” said McDowell, his work done and an appetising weekend ahead.

In an effort to keep the course playable and consistent with the first round, the USGA applied water overnight to greens and fairways as well as closely mown areas. Still, the challenge which golfers faced was a tough one with errant shots heavily penalised. The plights of McIlroy and Luke Donald, the two top-ranked players in the world, emphasised the severity of the course for anyone not on their game.

McIlroy’s woes went all the way to his closing hole, the Par 3 eighth, where he missed an 18-inch putt for par. That closing bogey meant the 23-year-old Ulsterman finished with a 73 for 150, 10-over, and became the first defending champion since Angel Cabrera in 2008 to miss the cut the following year.

“It hasn’t been the greatest run over the last sort of six weeks or whatever it is; but I still see enough good stuff in the rounds that it does give me hope that it’s not very far away,” said McIlroy, who flew home last night.

He will next play in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush in less than a fortnight’s time.

For McDowell, it was invariably a case of finding fairway after fairway. Just as he has done on tour all season, G-Mac topped the stats for fairways hit as he found 10 of 14. As if to underline the error of missing a fairway, McDowell ran up bogeys on the three he missed: the ninth, his opening hole, the first and the sixth.

In the main, though, McDowell kept the momentum from the first round when he’d signed for a one-over-par 72 to add to his opening 69 jump and straight into the thick of affairs.

Throughout his round, the relationship with his caddie Kenny Comboy was evident. For instance, when handed a four iron for his approach into the fifth, McDowell remarked, “I don’t want to go fiddling it.” Caddie: “No, of course you don’t.” Invariably, the pair managed to get it right; with the player executing the shots that put him into contention for another Major.

McDowell’s play yielded four birdies, his first coming on the 10th and, then, impressively on the 15th (from 20 feet) and 16th (from 10 feet). He dropped a shot on the first, pushing his tee shot to the right where he was blocked out by trees, but then hit to 15 feet for a birdie on the Par 3 third only to lose shots back-to-back at the tough fifth and sixth holes.

On the driveable Par 4 seventh, McDowell – so accurate for much of the day – pushed his tee-shot into the rough and, although he found the green with his pitch, could only two-putt for par. Then, on the eighth, his closing hole, his tee shot finished over the back and he failed to get up and down.

Still and all, a decent two days’ work which left him in a position to challenge heading into the weekend. Any similarities with his win at Pebble Beach?

“I guess that the similar thing is that level par is going to be close to winning. The other similarity is the breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean there, that feels kind of the same kind of chill and the same heaviness to it.

“It’s a different golf course though. Pebble was so short and you really had to be disciplined coming into the greens. There is a certain element of discipline required around here as well but it’s a bigger golf course requiring a lot more big shots. You’ve got to hit shots. You got to really, really shape them well. Whereas Pebble, there might have been two or three different ways to play different holes, this golf course is pretty much one dimensional.”

It’s an examination that never stops. He’s half-way there. The chase is on.

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