McDowell stays cool under pressure

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- At a U.S. Open that will likely always be defined by failure, Graeme McDowell turned what was a final-day fiasco for just about everyone else into the highlight of a lifetime.

Players crashed harder than any waves ever did this week at Pebble Beach, and it was difficult not to get swept up by the undertow.

But somehow McDowell became the first European in 40 years to capture the U.S. Open on a day when far more heralded players such as Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods could have easily walked off with the title.

But while third-round leader Dustin Johnson was imploding -- and while Els, Mickelson and Woods had their share of head-scratching moments -- McDowell somehow stayed calm to win by a single stroke over France's Gregory Havret despite making just a single birdie.

"He's been ice cool all week," beamed McDowell's father, Kenny, as he stood on the edge of Stillwater Cove, the body of water that borders the 18th hole, where McDowell sealed the victory with a nervous par and gave his dad the Father's Day gift he sought.

If you were thinking of adjectives to describe the final day of the 110th U.S. Open, "comfortable" certainly would not be one of them.

From the moment Johnson knocked his tee shot into oblivion at the second hole, you knew this was going to be one of those U.S. Open days in which disaster dictated outcome.

Johnson shot 82, one of the highest rounds in U.S. Open history by a third-round leader.

Els, a two-time U.S. Open champion, played the back nine in 40 when 38 would have reached a playoff for the title.

Mickelson, trying for his first U.S. Open title, had a 15-foot eagle putt on the fourth hole that would have put him solidly in the mix, ran it by and three-putted, never making a birdie the rest of the day on the way to a tie for fourth.

"All I had to do was shoot even par on the back and I'm in a playoff," Mickelson said.

And Woods, coming off a back-nine 31 Saturday that gave him hopes of a record-tying fourth Open, shot 38 on the front side to severely affect his chances before tying Mickelson for fourth.

"We made three mental mistakes today," Woods said he told his caddie, Steve Williams. "The only thing it cost us was a chance to win the U.S. Open."

Johnson won the past two AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Ams and looked as if he owned the place through three rounds of the U.S. Open.

Els, Mickelson and Woods have combined for 21 major championships and shot a combined 8 over par with one of the biggest titles in golf on the line.

"I just can't believe how difficult this golf course was," McDowell said. "I had a little peek at the leaderboard to see what was going on, and no one was going crazy. I couldn't believe that."

Well, they were going crazy …crazy as in pulling their hair out, kicking themselves for blunders, any other cliché you want to use about a comedy of errors that left a couple of virtually unknown Europeans, McDowell and Havret, who is ranked 391st in the world, battling for the trophy.

McDowell trailed by 3 strokes entering the final round and led by 3 just eight holes later. That alone had to make McDowell wonder whether his own minefield awaited.

"You see it year in and year out at these tournaments," said Ken Comboy, McDowell's longtime caddie who also has worked for several others in Europe, including Thomas Bjorn. "A big lead is so slender in these events because the course is brutal. You see the greatest players in the world today dropping shots like confetti."

McDowell, who won the Wales Open two weeks ago for his fifth career victory on the European Tour, managed to avoid such disasters.

His final-round 74 was the highest score by a U.S. Open winner since Andy North shot 74 to win at Oakland Hills in 1985.

Ranked 36th in the world, McDowell, who played on the 2008 European Ryder Cup team, came to America to play college golf and starred at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, where he became the No. 1 collegiate golfer and won six times in 12 events before turning pro.

But such success doesn't garner the type of worldwide attention that a major championship brings. And it will surely make the Irish and the British proud. He hails from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and is a proud Irishman. But his country is part of the United Kingdom and McDowell carries a British passport.

That might sound confusing, but his game Sunday was anything but. McDowell shot 39 on the back nine and did not make any of the crucial errors that would have doomed his chances.

"I really just tried to stay calm on the back nine, and I really did," he said. "I did a great job of it."

"He was unbelievable," Comboy said. "It's controlling your emotions more than anything else. The golf course asks you 18 difficult questions. If you let your guard down on any hole, even the easy holes… It's just survival."

McDowell's victory was the first for a European at the U.S. Open since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970 and just the third since 1925. It was just his 19th start in a major championship, which is less than the combined major championship victory totals of his more-famous pursuers.

But it is McDowell who is with the trophy today, owing to a cool that nobody else could muster on a course that made nothing easy.

"About the only time I actually believed was when I had a 1-footer there to win," he said. "But deep down, I knew I had the confidence and calmness inside me to do it today."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.