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Nerves Tested at the Olympic Club

Expert Analysis of the US Open by Dermot Gilleece

Posted Jun 19, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

Olympic Club Fairway

There was a remarkable calmness, bordering on serenity about the way Webb Simpson progressed to his first Major title when capturing the 112th US Open at The Olympic Club.  It reminded me of the scene at Augusta National in 1999, when Jose-Maria Olazabal made a triumphant return from serious illness to capture the US Masters for a second time.

Looking at the Spaniard walking beside him up the 72nd fairway, playing partner, Greg Norman, could hardly credit how natural the whole thing seemed. And the man who had got so close as to be about to register his fifth, top-three finish in 19 attempts at a title he coveted most, found himself thinking: "It's as easy as that; he's won the tournament."

One could imagine countless Major nearly-men having precisely that thought as realisation of his triumph dawned on Simpson while sitting in the locker-room with his wife.  The final pairing of Graeme McDowell and Jim Furyk had completed their work, having failed to catch him.  Painful near-misses must have stabbed again at Colin Montgomerie’s heart despite the distraction of working as a pundit for Sky.  Against the background of how close he had come in this, his favourite Major, especially at Oakmont in 1994 and Congressional in 1997, Monty must have wondered again at how golfing justice had seemingly failed him.

And Lee Westwood.  What were his innermost thoughts about a winner who had failed to birdie the eminently reachable, long 17th on the final day, when the Englishman had knocked a five-iron to a couple of feet for an eagle three?  Indeed not long before Simpson’s arrival there, Padraig Harrington had carded a birdie after a far more difficult bunker recovery.

The fact was that from an early stage on Sunday afternoon, level-par or one-over began to look increasingly attractive as a winning total.  In fact Harrington, for whom a birdie at the last would have secured a one-over total, was convinced it would have earned him at least a play-off, even with McDowell and Furyk apparently in control of the championship out on the course.

In the event, Simpson got to one over with some stunning play towards the middle of the round, delivering birdies at the sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th, along with a great par save on the ninth.  As an insurance policy, you felt that two more birdies on the closing eight holes would have put the title some way beyond the reach of his rivals.   

The way things turned out, eight straight pars were enough.  These culminated in a four of considerable merit at the last, where he pushed his approach into thick greenside rough on the right and then got up and down to a pin tucked dangerously close to a bunker on the opposite side.

While all this was going on, experts were killed telling us that whatever happened, famously solid Furyk wouldn’t beat himself.  Yet where an eminently attainable finish of par, birdie, par would have given him the title, the 43-year-old American carded bogey, par, bogey.  His six at the long 16th was especially destructive, given that is stemmed from a duck-hook into trees with a three-wood which he had used for safety off the tee.

McDowell, meanwhile, was typically tenacious and tactically astute.  And the steel which delivered this title at Pebble Beach two years ago, was very much in evidence in a birdie on the 71st.  Another birdie-putt from 24 feet above the hole on the last, however, proved to be a step too far.  In truth, the Portrush man was not sufficiently in command of his game to take control of the situation.  The remarkable putting which characterised his 2010 season, right down to the Ryder Cup and a Target World Challenge victory over Tiger Woods, simply wasn’t there.

Finally, those critics who attacked the USGA for destroying the enjoyment of spectators through an unusually brutal course set-up, should think again.  The tactical battle stemming from severely demanding conditions, delivered a gripping spectacle on a thoroughly absorbing Sunday afternoon.  Worlds away from a birdie-fest in which proficiency with just the one club, ie the putter, is ultimately decisive, it was much appreciated by this golf enthusiast.

It reminded me of the ultimate competitor, Jack Nicklaus. When asked if the merest nudge with a putter which sent the ball careering down a menacing slope at Augusta National could be considered a golf-shot in the strictest sense, he replied: “Probably not. But putting should be as much a test of nerve as of skill.”

Nerves were tested to the limit at The Olympic Club. And through a combination of circumstances, Simpson survived the ordeal better than his rivals.

- Dermot Gilleece

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