By David Shefter, USGA
Pebble Beach, Calif. - As much as Pebble Beach Golf Links has the playing characteristics - mainly wind, cool temperatures and sea views - of classic venues found in Great Britain and Ireland, it's quite amazing to think that no European has won here.
That includes the PGA Tour's annual AT&T National Pro-Am contested each February, the 1977 PGA Championship, and four U.S. Opens.
Perhaps Graeme McDowell will end that trend, and Europe's 40-year U.S. Open victory drought in the process. The 30-year-old from Portrush, Northern Ireland fashioned a 3-under-par 68 in damp, cool and slightly breezy conditions on Friday to grab a two-stroke lead midway through the second round of the 110th U.S. Open.
McDowell, who had an even-par 71 on the 7,040-yard layout Thursday afternoon, sits at 139, two ahead of Dustin Johnson, the winner of the last two AT&Ts at Pebble, two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and 18-year-old Japanese wunderkind Ryo Ishikawa.
Els matched McDowell for the championship's best round, while Johnson posted a 70. Ishikawa, competing in his first U.S. Open, shot an even-par 71.
Paul Casey, who shared the first-round lead with Shaun Micheel and Brendon de Jonge, was hurt by a triple-bogey 8 on No. 14 and posted a 73 and sits among a group at even-par 142. De Jonge and Micheel also struggled, shooting 73 (142) and 76 (145), respectively.
Rafael Cabrera-Bello, K.J. Choi, Mike Weir and Ian Poulter, each of whom shot 1-under 70 on Thursday, had afternoon starting times.
Tiger Woods, a 15-shot winner when the Open was last contested at Pebble Beach in 2000, shot two strokes better than Thursday with a 72, but sits seven shots off the lead at 4-over 146. In 2000, Woods led by six going into the weekend. Lee Westwood, grouped with Woods and Els the first two rounds, had a 71 (145).
The low 60 golfers and ties, plus anyone within 10 strokes of the lead, will play the final 36 holes.
McDowell, meanwhile, bested his previous best U.S. Open - rounds one and three at Bethpage Black - by one.
But he arrived at Pebble on a bit of a hot streak. Two weeks ago, he won the Celtic Manor Wales Open with weekend rounds of 64-63. He refreshed for the Open by taking a week off at his Lake Nona home in Orlando, Fla., something he didn't do when he claimed the 2008 Barclays Scottish Open a week prior to that year's British Open.
"When I won at Loch Lomond I achieved all of my dreams," said McDowell. "I was in the Ryder Cup. It felt like a big, big deal. And I went to [Royal] Birkdale the following week and I got off to a good start, but burned out on the weekend, from fatigue or whatever. I ran out of steam.
"This time I feel different. The win was a huge springboard for me, a springboard of confidence for a good summer. I'm trying to use the momentum I had in Wales. I feel very relaxed and very under control of what I'm doing."
Still, McDowell wasn't the most prominently mentioned golfer from Northern Ireland entering the week. That distinction went to 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, who shot a final-round 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C. McIlroy, however, was likely to miss the cut after rounds of 75-77.
And when European pre-championship favorites are thrown out, Westwood, Casey, Padraig Harrington, Ian Poulter and Sergio Garcia are generally the individuals discussed.
Yet McDowell owns five European Tour victories, played on the 2008 European Ryder Cup Team and enjoyed an illustrious amateur career that included All-America honors at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and a spot on the victorious 2001 Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup Team.
"I'd be lying if I hadn't thought about picking up the trophy on Sunday afternoon," said McDowell. "But I'm trying to be very realistic about it as well. I'm trying to put no expectations on myself this weekend because, a), I know there are a lot of great players out here, and b), this golf course is extremely difficult."
McDowell's day began with a 4:20 a.m. wake-up call and it wasn't until the par-5 14th - five holes into his round - when he started to come alive. He holed a 35-foot birdie putt to get to even par for the championship. He closed his first nine by sandwiching a brilliant 10-foot par save at 17 around birdies at 16 and 18, the latter from the left greenside bunker when he was able to go for the par-5 hole in two shots.
He holed a 20-footer at the fourth and an 8-footer at the par-5 sixth to reach four under par. He was poised to finish on that number, but he three-putted the ninth from 60 feet above the hole. His birdie try rolled 15 feet past the hole, leaving him a tricky 4-footer for bogey.
During his interview session in the media center, a reporter asked McDowell if he had given any thought about joining the illustrious quartet of Pebble Beach U.S. Open champions.
McDowell admitted he didn't know that foursome, other than Woods.
"I'm not a massive golf historian," he said. "I'd be lying if I said I was."
That doesn't mean he wouldn't mind making some history this weekend.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.