Graeme McDowell produced his most stunning major championship performance to date when he chiseled out a brilliant three under par 68 to grab a two-shot clubhouse lead in the US Open at America’s most iconic course.
Battling cold, breezy conditions that were more akin to his native Portrush than California in June, the 30 year old Ulsterman confessed that he had goosebumps as he saw his name sitting proudly on the top of the leader board on three under par at Pebble Beach
Despite three-putt bogey at his closing hole, the par-four ninth, McDowell was still looking down on the likse of two-time US Open winner Ernie Els, who matched the Irish star’s best of the week 68 to share second place with American Dustin Johnson (70) and the Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa (71) on one under par.
“This is one of the special places in world golf,” said McDowell, who is seven shots clear of Tiger Woods (72). “There are a lot of golf courses in the world that give you the goosebumps when you are playing them. The 17th at St Andrews, here and Augusta.
“Obviously to have your name at the top of the leaderboard in a US Open is a special feeling. I’m playing the golf of my life but there’s a long way to go.”
There was misery for Rory McIlroy as added a 77 to his opening 75 to miss the cut on 10 over par alongside Tom Waton and Ishikawa.
What was worse for the Holywood star was that Ishikawa totally outplayed him and 60 year old Watson also shot a 71 to finish on seven-over.
Ballyclare’s Gareth Maybin spectacularly eagled the par five 18th with a 235-yard hybrid to 15 feet and like Watson, he looked certain to make the cut on the 10 shot rule as he finished on seven over after a 75.
Incredibly, McDowell’s presence in the US Open was in doubt until he finished tied 28th in the BMW PGA at Wentworth to move from the cut-off line at 50th in the world to 49th.
The following week he finished fourth in the Madrid Masters to move up to 44th and went on to scorch to a three-shot victory in the Celtic Manor Wales Open just two weeks ago, leaping to 36th in the world.
He felt that victory was going to act as a springboard for him in his career, explaining: “I really feel like I have a big win in me.”
He wasn’t kidding and he is now halfway towards becoming just the third Irish major winner after fellow Portrush man Fred Daly and Dubliner Padraig Harrington.
Tied for 10th place overnight, just two strokes behind leaders Paul Casey, Shaun Micheel and Brendon de Jonge, McDowell made an adventurous start to his second round, carding two bogeys and two birdies in his first five holes.
Starting on the back nine, he bogeyed the 10th when he drove into a fairway bunker and holed a 10 footer for his five after blast an eight footer for par well past the hole.
He bounced back with a stellar approach to just 12 inches at the next but bunkered his tee shot at the par-three 12th and failed with a 15 footer for his par.
Holing putts when it counts is always vital for a player hoping to win a major title and McDowell was doubly delighted to drain a 30 footer at the 14th - a par five he said he be happy to play in two over for the week.
He said: “It took the body a little while to waken up at 7.20 in the morning. But once we got going, I made a really good putt from 30 feet on the 14th, which really got my round going.
“I gave myself a lot of chances and generally felt pretty good with the putter again today. But the golf course has got some teeth and you have got to have your wits about you.
“I am just really happy with the way I have conducted myself the last couple of days. Yesterday I got a little frustrated, today I held my emotions in check a little better.”
He then birdied the 16th from 10 feet, almost spinning his approach back into the hole for an eagle two before saving a great par from six feet at the 208 yard 17th, where he overshot the green.
A birdie at the 18th where splashed out to six feet from greenside sand, gave him a share of the lead with de Jonge and playing partner Micheel on two under par.
A curling 15-foot birdie putt fell at the fifth to put him two in front before he extended his lead to three strokes at the par-five sixth with spinning wedge to just five feet.
He did well to just three-putt for bogey at his final hole, the ninth, knocking 50 foot birdie chance 18 feet past and then leaving himself a tricky three and a half footer for bogey.
He said: “I hit some really nice shots. It’s heaven and hell out here for sure. You don’t get above the hole and you have to find the fairways.
“The greens are playable from below the hole but I had no putt on the ninth there and putted my ball off the green.”