Anyone looking for excitement in the final round of the US Open is at the wrong major. They call it the toughest test in golf for a reason. This championship is won by not losing. And if the expectations are any different, blame it on the false expectations created by Torrey Pines. That is where Tiger Woods delivered perhaps the most riveting US Open in the past 10 years.
The lasting images from 2008 at Torrey Pines are Woods holing a 12ft birdie putt on the final hole to force a play-off, Rocco Mediate making the long, downhill birdie putt on the 15th hole to take the lead in the play-off, and Woods making another birdie on the 18th to force extra holes. The stage was set for such dramatics on Sunday at Pebble Beach. Graeme McDowell was in front and three of the best players from this generation - Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, with a combined 184 victories and 21 majors - were poised to chase him down.
The chase turned into a five-car crash. The top five players on the leaderboard, including Gregory Havret of France, combined to make two birdies on the back nine. One of them came from Els, whose five-iron on the par-3 12th hopped out of the rough and rolled two feet away. The other came from Woods, who blasted out of the bunker fronting the 14th green to inside a foot. Two things stand out about McDowell's victory. He started the final round three shots out of the lead, closed with a three-over 74 and won the championship.
"I was surprised," said McDowell, whose 74 was the highest final round by a US Open champion since Andy North shot a 74 at Oakland Hills in 1985. "I didn't think three-over par was going to get the job done today. I really didn't." It was the second year in a row that the US Open champion made only one birdie in the final round. Lucas Glover waited until the 16th hole at Bethpage Black, McDowell hit his at the par-5 fifth.
Augusta National has restored the roars to the Masters with clever hole locations and allow for birdies and eagles. YE Yang's biggest moment at Hazeltine in the PGA Championship last year was chipping in for eagle. The British Open has a little of everything, depending on the links and the wind. The US Open is more about survival. Always has been. Of the final five groups that teed off, Davis Love III was the only player who did not succumb to par. He shot an even-par 71.
The course did not appear any more daunting the previous three days, with some accessible hole locations, although it was the fastest it had played all week. That was the biggest difference. If there was more, Mickelson was not telling. "I'm not really sure," the Masters champion said when asked why Pebble Beach was so tough. "I kind of know, but I would rather not get into it. It just doesn't sound good. I mean, it was just tough. It was a tough day on the golf course."
Woods did not say anything bad about the greens. This time, he blamed himself for three mental mistakes - his club selection off the par-5 sixth that went over the cliff to turn birdie into bogey; his sand wedge down the side of the cliff on the 10th for a bogey; and his club selection and shot on the 12th, another bogey. Woods closed with a 75 and finished three shots behind in a tie for fourth. "The only thing it cost us was a chance to win the US Open," he said.
As for Els? He lost his way along the Pacific coast, twice hitting shots down the side of the hill toward the beach on the 10th hole for double bogey, and the bogeys he made before and after that hole did not help. McDowell, a 30-year-old from Northern Ireland, might have spoken for everyone when he talked about the test the US Open provided on the final day. "No matter how good you play," he said, "good golf got rewarded, and bad golf got punished really badly."