American Webb Simpson, playing only the fifth major of his life, is the new United States Open champion as golf’s ability to surprise added yet another chapter in misty San Francisco.
The 26-year-old came from four strokes back at the Olympic Club and then watched almost in disbelief when Graeme McDowell missed a 20-foot putt to tie on the final green.
Northern Ireland’s 2010 champion was left as the only man who could deny Simpson after long-time leader Jim Furyk bogeyed three of the last six holes.
Simpson, second to Luke Donald on last season’s PGA Tour money list, becomes the ninth first-time winner in a row in the majors – and the 15th different winner in a row.
“I’ve never felt nerves like I felt today,” he said after a closing 68 gave him a one-over total of 281. “I had to hit my legs because I couldn’t feel them.”
Simpson, who becomes the first recipient of the Jack Nicklaus Medal and moves up from 14th to fifth in the world, is also the third successive American champion in the majors.
Keegan Bradley won the USPGA Championship last August – that was the first major he had ever played in – and two months ago, of course, Bubba Watson won The Masters.
McDowell’s disappointment was there for all to see as he spoke after a three-over 73 dropped him from joint leader with Furyk at the start of the day into joint-second with American qualifier Michael Thompson.
“It was grind and a slog, but I’ll be back,” said the 32-year-old from Portrush, who had so hoped to make it three Northern Irish wins in a row following Rory McIlroy’s success last June.
“The pin on the 18th was brutal –it was tough to get it within 10 feet – but I’m proud of myself. I didn’t have my A-game.
“I did a lot right, but this course does not allow you to get into a rhythm and it was a struggle.”
With Simpson in the clubhouse McDowell found himself two behind with two to play, but kept his chances alive by sinking a ten-foot birdie putt on the long 17th.
It was not to be, though, and it was Furyk who was really the one who let it slip away.
Winner in 2003, the 42-year-old did not have a single birdie in his closing 74, but after staying in front with a 30-foot par putt on the 12th – McDowell followed him in from 25 for birdie – he finished poorly.
Both bogeyed the short 13th, McDowell dropped another on the next, then Furyk snap-hooked his drive at the 16th – reduced from 670 yards to 569 – and took six.
Failing to birdie the 17th meant he also needed one on the last to force an 18-hole play-off, which would have taken place today.
But his pulled approach to the last plugged in a bunker and that effectively was that.
“I have no-one to blame but myself,” Furyk said. “It was my tournament to win and I didn’t close it out.”
He finished joint-fourth with fellow Americans David Toms, Jason Dufner, John Peterson and also Dubliner Padraig Harrington.
Harrington matched Simpson’s 68 and was still in with a chance until he too buried his second to the 18th in the sand.
There were others left wondering what might have been.
Two-time winner Ernie Els would have been in a play-off if he had played the last three in one under, but instead he bogeyed two of them and dropped to ninth.
Then there was Lee Westwood. In his 57th attempt to win a major he was joint third and only three back when his drive down the fifth stuck up a tree. He double-bogeyed it and ended up joint 10th (see below).
Webb Simpson is up from 14th to fifth in the world with his US Open victory, while joint runner-up Graeme McDowell, who missed a putt on the last to tie, improves from 21st to 11th.
Latest world rankings:
1 Luke Donald 10.12pts, 2 Rory McIlroy 8.86, 3 Lee Westwood 8.28, 4 Tiger Woods 6.78, 5 Webb Simpson 6.66, 6 Bubba Watson 5.99, 7 Matt Kuchar 5.86, 8 Jason Dufner 5.69, 9 Justin Rose 5.68, 10 Hunter Mahan 5.39, 11 Graeme McDowell 5.24, 12 Steve Stricker 5.01, 13 Martin Kaymer 4.96, 14 Dustin Johnson 4.88, 15 Phil Mickelson 4.83, 16 Charl Schwartzel 4.68, 17 Adam Scott 4.67, 18 Zach Johnson 4.63, 19 Rickie Fowler 4.54, 20 Louis Oosthuizen 4.51
Tree halts Westwood’s charge
Lee Westwood has spoken about the moment his latest bid to win a major went up in smoke – or, to be more accurate, up in a tree.
Three off the lead and still with 14 holes to play at the US Open in San Francisco, the Englishman’s drive down the 491-yard fifth was never seen again.
Even trying to find his ball with a pair of binoculars did no good, so it was back to the tee to hit another.
There was to be no recovery from a double bogey six and after finishing joint tenth, four behind winner Webb Simpson, he said: “You could have understood it if my shot was way off line, but it was on the perfect line.
“You’ve got to cut that corner and try to hold it up against that slope, because the fairway is so severe.
“It was hard to get any momentum going after that because it took the wind out of my sails.
“I wasn’t really making any putts and wasn’t getting any breaks.
“I eagled the 17th after a great approach (he was a foot away from an albatross), but it was probably too little too late by then.
“It was just one of those frustrating days really, but we live to fight another day.”
Next month’s Open at Royal Lytham will become Westwood’s 58th attempt to land a major title and he has now had 14 top tens, seven of them top threes.