PEBBLE BEACH, Fla. -- The ear-busting buzzer came early for Graeme McDowell, a guy who has been known to burn the midnight oil and hoist a few cold ones when the mood strikes.
His alarm clock rang at 4:20 a.m. Friday.
"It was definitely a rude awakening," he said.
|'I'm probably as ready to go into the weekend of a major as I've ever been,' Graeme McDowell says. (AP)|
In position for his best finish ever in a major championship, the affable 30-year-old from Northern Ireland shot a 3-under 68 early in the second round at Pebble Beach Golf Links, taking the outright lead at the halfway point of the 110th U.S. Open.
While most folks have heard of Irish star Padraig Harrington and young gun Rory McIlroy by now -- given that both have won on multiple world tours -- McDowell is a bit more of a mystery man, at least in the States, where he plays infrequently.
Perhaps not for long, on either front.
"He did all the things you need to do, the things I did yesterday," said first-round leader Shaun Micheel, McDowell's playing partner and a major championship winner himself. "If he keeps playing like that, he is going to win."
For a guy who has only once finished in the top 10 at a Grand Slam event, McDowell seems to have arrived at Pebble Beach with a definitive plan of attack in mind. After winning two weeks ago on the European Tour at Celtic Manor, where he hopes to play on the Ryder Cup team for the second consecutive time when the matches are played there this fall, McDowell took a week off.
Well, sort of. He came to Pebble Beach last Friday and did four days of recon work on the famed seaside course. Whatever he learned, it's working. After two rounds, he has amassed a staggering 11 birdies.
So far, McDowell has enjoyed the eye-popping seaside view without becoming part of the scenery himself.
"It is heaven and hell for sure," he laughed. "How do you keep hell out of the equation? You don't get above the hole. That's the No. 1 key to this golf course. Obviously finding the fairways is a big key here; and from there, like I say, you've really got to be smart coming into the greens."
To put those birdies into perspective, consider that Tiger Woods had 21 over four days when he ran away to win the Open title by a record-shattering 15 strokes a decade ago at Pebble. Granted, McDowell has made eight bogeys, but still.
"He played good, he played real good," said Rocco Mediate, the third member of the McDowell threesome. "He could have made a lot more [birdies]. He drove it good, putted good, got up and down a few times, kept the ugly stuff off the card.
"I'm not surprised at all. I have played with him before, and he's a really good player and a really good guy. We had a good time. He has definitely got the goods."
Elling: Micheel penalized
Mostly, he's minimized the "bads."
"This is one of the special places in world golf," said McDowell, who has played Pebble Beach in the past on the regular PGA Tour stop. "There's a lot of golf courses in the world that kind of give you the goose bumps when you're playing them. First tee at St. Andrews, maybe the 17th at St. Andrews, here, and Augusta, obviously. "But when you're walking down 7, 8, 9, 10, here it just is a beautiful place to play golf. Obviously to have your name at the top of the leaderboard of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is a special feeling."
If he sounds like he's about to be swept away with the outgoing tide, he's not.
"You're out there and the golf course has got some teeth," he said, "so you're really trying to keep your wits about you."
The Ulsterman took it as low as 4 under overall at one point Friday before he bogeyed his last hole, the brutal ninth, when he three-putted from 60 feet and had to make a tricky 4-footer just to salvage a bogey. But he seems to have a good handle on things for a guy who has never before been in such a lofty position.
He's facing a tall world order. McDowell is ranked No. 37 in the world, which is a number that closely approximates the number of years -- a whopping 40 -- since a European player won the National Open
McDowell, who attended college at UAB, is making his 19th start in a major and his best finish at the Open was T18 last year. He's also finished as high as T17 at the Masters, T11 at the British Open and T10 at the PGA. McDowell, a hugely popular player with his peers, seems to be sneaking up on a breakthrough of sorts.
"I'm not seeing the battle with the rest of the field, I'm seeing the battle with myself and the golf course," he said evenly. "So I really, really feel like I'm playing the golf course really disciplined. I feel like all facets of my game are in good shape.
"I'm probably as ready to go into the weekend of a major as I've ever been. Is this weekend my weekend? I have no idea, but I'll certainly be giving it my best shot, 100 percent."
He teed off at 7:20 a.m. on Friday. So the good news is, the better he plays, the later he gets to sleep on the weekend. He won't have to wake up and smell the coffee quite so early.
"If I get a sniff Sunday afternoon," he said of the title, "I'll be ready for it."