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One-time major winners seek next level at U.S. Open

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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BETHESDA, Md. -- At the aptly named Congressional Country Club, a whole host of one-hit wonders are campaigning for a second term as major champion.

Y.E. Yang, the 2009 PGA Champion who outdueled Tiger Woods down the stretch, is the frontrunner in a race to see who can reinforce their one shining moment with another piece of golf's grand slam hardware.

The Korean is being chased in red figures by the likes of one-major brethren Louis Oosthuizen, Davis Love III, Stewart Cink and defending champion Graeme McDowell. (Charl Schwartzel joined the chase in the afternoon wave.)

Every one of them would like to change the conversation about their legacy by joining the more exclusive club of multiple major winners.

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"Of course I was excited to come here, but I was also excited to maybe close a chapter that was the last 12 months and try and start talking about the future rather than talking about the past," said McDowell, the affable Northern Irishman who had to return the U.S. Open trophy before shooting a 1-under 70 on Thursday morning. "I feel like I've spent the last three months talking about Pebble and defending my Open title, and so somehow coming here this week, I really felt that I had already sort of did all the talking and I was ready to move forward."

"Defense" is the operative word for one-time major winners whether they did it the year before or the decade before. As defining as that milestone victory can be to a golfer, it is also constraining in its own way. You spend the remaining years trying to defend your worthiness to that stature.

Nobody knows that better than Love. With 20 career victories, including the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot, Love is revered enough to warrant being the captain of the upcoming Ryder Cup in 2012 at Medinah. But because his résumé is short of major titles after some repeated near misses, Love remains on the outside looking in at the World Golf Hall of Fame.

But even at age 46, he keeps being competitive in the U.S. Open -- a tournament he probably should have won in 1996 at Oakland Hills when he three-putted the 72nd green and left the trophy in the arms of qualifier Steve Jones. Love was among the first-round leaders at Torrey Pines in 2008 and contended deep into Sunday last year at Pebble Beach before tying for sixth.

"Last year I felt like I had a great chance to win and I just kept making doubles, basically one every day. That hurt me," he said. "Other than that, I would have had a chance to win."

Love bogeyed the 18th hole Thursday to shoot 1-under 70, and he still has the tools to stick around for the weekend.

Y.E. Yang seeks his second major title to compliment the PGA crown he won in 2009. (Getty Images)  
Y.E. Yang seeks his second major title to compliment the PGA crown he won in 2009. (Getty Images)  
"A lot of experience on this golf course and a lot of experience in majors, so that gives you a little bit of confidence," Love said. "I'm still longer than some players in the group and in some groups I'm shorter. But I'm still getting it out there far enough. It just comes down to the mental side and short game and I should have the advantage with all my experience."

At the other end of the spectrum from Love is Oosthuizen, the South African who ran away with the British Open last year at St. Andrews. Despite that one victory, Oosthuizen's only other made cut in 11 major starts was a last-place finish at the 2008 PGA. But now that he knows how it's done, he settled into a better rhythm, leading to a 2-under 69 despite a stumbling start on the easier front nine at Congressional.

"Any major tournament I think you're just trying to play -- never get too far ahead of yourself or trying to make miracle shots, especially early in the tournament," Oosthuizen said. "Like you say, you just want to get yourself into a position to have a chance."

Chances haven't been as prevalent for Stewart Cink since winning his lone major title at the 2009 British Open when he played the spoiler in the playoff at Turnberry and beat a 59-year-old Tom Watson. Cink has struggled to reclaim his usual form since and didn't even have his A-game when he shot 70.

"I didn't play particularly well today," said Cink, who jumped to a fast start with birdies on 10 and 11 and then hung on the rest of the way. "I scored well. I didn't hit very many greens, but when I did hit the greens, I made putts. It wasn't a U.S. Open-style round at all, but I'll take under par ... I think I can do better than I did today."

Perhaps the only one among the major winners under par to have been playing like a star since his major breakout is McDowell. The victory at Pebble Beach propelled him to a standout season that included being the heroic closer for Europe at the Ryder Cup and upending host Tiger Woods in a playoff at Chevron World Challenge.

Yet McDowell has somewhat suffered under the strain of being the reigning U.S. Open champion this season. His most promising opportunity came at the Players Championship in May, when he played his last 19 holes in 9 over to fall from first place to T33.

Thursday marked an opportunity for him to turn the page.

"As the U.S. Open champion, I had a lot of media to do," he said. "I got that out of the way as early as I possibly could so I could come here this week and enjoy any last three or four weeks on the golf course, and not spend my time working on this week.

"It's probably the best I've felt in months. So it's great to be here. Like I say, I feel like I'm opening a new chapter for the rest of my career, hopefully."

With so much golf left to be played and dozens of qualified challengers hoping to get that first major win pushing them, perhaps their experience will be the key to unlocking the door to the multiple majors club. Yang would like to think so.

"In Korea, they say that it takes a winner to recognize a winner," he said through an interpreter. "Yeah, definitely it'll help. I'm not sure if it boosts my confidence or helps me under pressure. But I know the feeling, and I know that it's a little more of everything in a major than it is in other tournaments, so it's easier for me to cope with that kind of pressure or expectations, whatever you want to call it. It definitely has some kind of psychological advantage."

Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for The Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com

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