The sun sank low in the sky over Pebble Beach as Pádraig Harrington took a step backwards to make his point.
“I think he can win,” Harrington said of Graeme McDowell’s chances of becoming the second player from Portrush on the rugged Antrim coast to win a major championship. “I honestly think he can win from the front. There are not a lot of people you could say that about, but he is that sort of character.”
Harrington wasn’t trying to put pressure on a potential rival for the 110th US Open but simply stating what many were thinking: this 30 year old Ulsterman with the American twang really has got the game and the guts to follow in Fred Daly’s footsteps and end Europe’s 40 year wait for a victory in America’s most iconic golf tournament.
Considering the magical round he had just witnessed, this was praise indeed from the three time major champion whose victories in the Open and the US PGA made European golf believe in itself again.
Harrington had just carded a second successive 73 to trail McDowell by seven strokes entering the final 36 holes. But he’d seen playing partner Phil Mickelson conjure the easiest 66 he’d ever seen in his life to get within two strokes of the McDowell’s lead.
“He just shot 66 doing handstands,” Harrington said of Mickelson’s Friday resurrection. “It was as easy as could be.
“He was spectacular all day. I got to see it first hand. He didn’t miss a shot all day. He had the ball well under control. Best I’ve ever seen him play. It was as easy a 66 as you’ll ever see.”
McDowell headed into last night’s third round sitting in the most pressurised seat in American golf with the Phil the Thrill, the pretender to Tiger Woods’ throne, snapping at his heels.
Mickelson must be regarded as the overwhelming favourite to lift this title. But this is not the same Graeme McDowell who led the Open after the first round at Hoylake in 2006 only to come home 61st of the 71 finishers.
And it is certainly not the same Graeme McDowell who was tied for fourth place with Harrington at the halfway stage of the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale, only to blow his chances of glory with a third round 80.
McDowell went into Birkdale on an emotional high following what was a breakthrough victory in the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond the previous Sunday. This time he’s coming into the final two rounds of a major on the back of another watershed victory in the Celtic Manor Wales Open.
He’s a very different man.
“I feel I have a big win in me,” McDowell said in Wales two weeks ago. “Loch Lomond was huge but this is more of a springboard for me.”
McDowell’s Scottish win was important in that it secured his place in the Ryder Cup team that lost to the United States at Valhalla. He won two and a half points from four on his debut - a tally surpassed only by Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, who were outstanding that week.
And that’s why Harrington believes he’s such a dangerous animal entering the last two rounds of an American major with the pressure of the lead on his shoulders.
“The Ryder Cup was a big step for him,” Harrington said. “Every other event up to that it would have been a case of him performing when he felt good. In the Ryder Cup he performed when he had to and that is what he is going to have to do on the weekend.”
In the past McDowell has blown his chances of glory before Sunday afternoon but he’s been remarkably clinical in events where he has managed to stick around until the death and has proved himself to be a voracious finisher.
“If I get a sniff Sunday afternoon I’ll be ready for it,” he said. “I feel I’m as ready as I’m ever going to be. That doesn’t mean my name’s on the trophy this Sunday afternoon. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do.”
As for his own hopes of winning this week, a patently thin Harrington was hopeful rather than expectant.
“I’ve seen one good round anyway this week, so I know it can be done,” he said. “Over the weekend at some stage, I’m going to have to shoot something like that as well if I’m going to catch the leaders.”
Harrington closed with two rounds of 66 to win the US PGA two years ago but would settle for just one of those right now.
“I don’t know. If you gave me 66 on Sunday, I wouldn’t turn it down. I wouldn’t necessarily have to have it tomorrow. But at some stage, I’m going to have to get it back a couple under par or something like that for the weekend. That would be the goal. Who knows at this stage? If the conditions are a little tougher on the weekend, maybe a one or two under par winning this.”
Outscored by 11 shots by the Japanese teenager Ryo Ishikawa after rounds of 75 and 77 (and by three by 60-year old Tom Watson), the Holywood starlet was described as “a raw talent” by his good friend McDowell.
“I’m always surprised when he doesn’t win every week, he’s that good,” McDowell said. “There’s no doubt major championships are a different animal. Rory plays gung ho golf. He doesn’t put a lot of thought in what he does. He relies on sheer talent and sheer belief.
“He’s awesome, no doubt about it. But put him on a test like this where you get above the holes, and I don’t care how good you are, you’re going to make bogey, simple as that.
“He’s a young kid, he grips and rips it. It’s not U.S. Open golf, which you’ve got to place it, you’ve got to plot your way around and play smart.
“And I think that will come with experience. I think he will win Majors, no doubt about it. But like I say, right now he’s little bit of a raw talent.”
McDowell has talent in spades. But he’s also got an analytical brain and a surgically precise golf game. And if he gets a sniff, he’ll take some beating. Even by a man doing handstands.