Graeme McDowell produced a gutsy fightback but watched in agony as his 24 foot birdie putt on the 18th slipped by the hole and allowed Webb Simpson to breathe a sigh of relief and lift the US Open trophy at a foggy Olympic Club.
On a drama-filled day that saw Padraig Harrington launch a dramatic final round charge only to bogey the last and finish in a five-way tie for fourth, McDowell clawed his way back from what looked like a futile position with nine holes remaining to give himself a chance of forcing a Monday play-off.
Simpson, who was four shots behind overnight leaders McDowell and Jim Furyk starting the day, fired a second successive two under 68 to set a challenging clubhouse target of one over 281.
The 26-year old American got up and down for par from greenside rough at the 344-yard 18th, much to the relief of Harrington, who came to the finishing hole needing a birdie to match clubhouse leader Michael Thompson on two over but bogeyed and feared he might miss out on a play-off by a shot.
The Dubliner eventually did well to make a bogey five after plugging his gap wedge in the trap left of the green.
But if Harrington’s closing 68 was typical of the three-time major winner’s never-say-die attitude, McDowell could be equally proud of his runner up finish as he sank a clutch 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th to get to within a stroke of Simpson’s target score.
In the end, the 32-year old Portrush man had to settle for a share of second place with Thompson on two over and while he was disappointed to hit just three fairways in a closing 73, he was proud of a performance than makes a racing certainty to win his third Ryder Cup cap in Chicago in September.
“There’s a mixture of emotions inside me right now,” McDowell said when asked to describe his feelings. “Obviously disappointment, deflation, pride. But mostly just frustration, just because I hit three fairways today.
“That’s the US Open. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hit it in some fairways. And that was the key today really for me.”
As for the putt on the 18th, which started left and stayed there, McDowell said: “It was weird because I hit that putt in practice and it bumped left and it moved right of the hole and I just didn’t do that today.
“But it was a nice opportunity, one that I would obviously desperately love to have holed. But Webb’s a great champion and what a great weekend’s work for him, 68-68, taking nothing away from him. He should be very proud of himself.”
Furyk was tied for the lead with Simpson three holes to play but hooked into the trees and bogeyed the 16th, then failed to birdie the 17th before mimicking Harrington’s bogey at the last.
The 42-year old American failed to make a birdie in a closing 74 that left him tied with Harrington, David Toms (68), John Peterson (70) and Jason Dufner (70) on three over.
Asked to describe how disappointed he felt, Furyk said: “Very. Very. I don’t know how to put that one into words, but I had my opportunities and my chances and it was right there. It was, on that back nine, it was my tournament to win and I felt like if win the out there and shot even par, one-under, I would have distanced myself from the field and I wasn’t able to do so. And I played quite well, actually until the last three holes. So we’ll have to look at holes 70 to 72 of what cost me the tournament. I needed to play those last three better.”
The American won the FedEx Cup two years ago before losing form and he confessed that he was motivated by being written off as one of yesterday’s men as he hit his 40’s.
“Two years ago I was the Player of the Year in the United States,“ Furyk said. “I played poorly last year, and all of a sudden I’m middle-aged. So I got to be honest with you with you, that pisses me off.
“So, yeah, I think I have a few more good years. I’ve been saying it all year and I would like to get another opportunity, whether or not that happens again in a Major Championship, I don’t know.
“I know I let one slide today and slip and, hey, Webb went out there and got it too. He went out and shot 68 and to do that on this golf course on a Sunday is phenomenal. He’s a very good player and a good person. So I’m very happy for him and Dowd.”
Like Furyk, Harrington has been through a lean spell since he won his last major in 2008. But following his eighth place finish at the Masters with a share of fourth in San Francisco, he showed that he is far from finished as a major force.
Six shots off the pace starting the day, the Dubliner looked out of the running when he failed to get up and down for pars at the second and sixth after finding rough off the tee.
But the Dubliner’s putter warmed up for the first time all week and as Tiger Woods shot a 73 to fall back to 21st on seven over, Harrington made a hat-trick of birdies from the seventh to get back to four over par.
He was still five shots behind Furyk at that stage but as the leader faltered, the Dubliner made up ground.
At the par-three 13th he missed the green in the rough left but holed his chip for birdie, roaring “you little beauty” to get back to three over and leave himself in position to set a formidable target for the leaders.
He then holed a 10 footer for par at the 14th to remain on three over and got up and down from greenside for a phenomenal birdie from around nine feet at the 17th.
At three over par, he needed a birdie at the 18th to tie Michael Thompson for the clubhouse lead. But faced with an 111-yard shot from a downhill, sidehill lie, he guarded against over-cutting the ball and plugged his gap wedge in the left-hand trap.
With no chance of staying on the green if he took on the pin, he deliberately played for the greenside rough on the opposite side of the green and came up just inches short with his chip.
Cheered to the echo by the huge Irish-American presence in the gallery that thronged the hillside at the finishing hole, Harrington was ultimately disappointed to bogey the last.
“Obviously I had a great chance coming down the last and I felt good over it, felt I needed to make a birdie for sure,” said the Dubliner, who rose 19 places in the latest world rankings to 75th. “So I’m not too disappointed about making a bogey, but at least I’m not at the moment.”
Having bogeyed the 72nd hole in the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield to miss out on a play-off by a stroke, he feared the worst.
“If two-over makes the playoff, I’ll be dying,” he confessed. “But at the moment I think it’s going to be better than two-over. So it was a good day all around. I missed a few chances, got a few chances. When I look back through the week I’m probably going to be three shots, four shots short, by the looks of it.
“I could have certainly found those four shots throughout the week and that’s a nice place to be, to know that when I played here in’98, I finished 27th and I maxed out every ounce of talent I had in me to finish 27th.
“This time around I tied sixth [sic] and I feel like I could have easily been a number of shots better. So it’s nice to feel comfortable in those sort of situations.”
McDowell started with two solid pars but a three-putt bogey from just off the fringe at the third put him on the defensive and when he dropped further shots at the fifth, sixth and ninth, he knew he needed to react.
Birdies at the 11th and 12th got him back to within two shots of the lead but he gave them straight back with bogeys at the 13th and 14th, failing to get up and down from sand and greenside rough respectively, before making that late rally.
The Portrush man earned $695,916 to move up 10 places to 11th in the world while Harrington’s share of fourth was worth $276,841.
Simpson, who is the 12th first time winner from the last 13 majors, pocketed $1.4m for his maiden major victory.
Asked how nerve-wracking it felt watching McDowell and Furyk play the 18th with a chance to tie, he said: “I know what kind of players they are. Both have won majors. I expected both of them to do well coming in.
“I though even though Graeme had a 25-footer, it was probably going to hit the hole or have a good chance. I couldn’t be happier right now.”