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Michael Campbell
Michael Campbell became the first New Zealander to win a major since Bob Charles captured the British Open in 1963. (Photo: Getty Images)

Persistence Pays off at Pinehurst

When Michael Campbell tamed an ultra-tough Pinehurst No. 2 to win the U.S. Open in June, the New Zealander completed an amazing comeback from a major slump and lifted the spirits of an entire nation back home.

By George Willis, New York Post

Sure, golf's most famous names were there: Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Ernie. But when the week of the 105th U.S. Open arrived, there was one star that stood above the rest: Pinehurst No.2.

The famed course crafted from the genius of Donald Ross had everyone in awe. It's 7,214 yards of firm fairways and crowned greens posed an intimidating challenge to finish four championship rounds at even par or maybe match the 1-under par the late Payne Stewart shot in winning the last Open played there in 1999.

"You'll get the best player in the field winning this week," Ernie Els predicted.

It was thought only golf's best, the top 10 or so players in the world, would be equipped to handle Pinehurst during a sun-baked week; maybe Tiger, Phil, Vijay or Ernie. But when dusk arrived on Father's Day, it was a longshot New Zealander who stood on the 18th green, crying into his cap, celebrating his first major championship for himself, his family and his country.

Michael Campbell barely earned a spot into the U.S. Open. He was a sectional qualifier in England, needing birdie on the final hole to join the 156-player field. And it wasn't until Sunday that he was really noticed, holding steady on the back nine and eventually surviving the ultimate test of golf that all others failed.

Wearing a tattoo-like design on the back of his white shirt that means "inner strength, be strong," Campbell was a model of consistency, completing a magnificent 1-under-par 69 on Sunday to outlast Tiger Woods by two strokes.

This wasn't one man's victory; it belonged to a nation, as Campbell became the first New Zealander to win a major since Bob Charles captured the British Open in 1963.

"I think for the first time I actually made the front page of the newspapers back home with the All Blacks," Campbell said referring to New Zealand's famous rugby team. "They're champions and heroes of mine and to knock them off their pedestal for the one week means a lot to me."

It wasn't just the All Blacks Campbell thought about. There was Charles and the Maori people of New Zealand, who needed a golf hero. "To win this major championship, obviously I do it for myself, but also the people back home," he said. "I won this for the people back home, all the sports fans."

It was a victory that didn't come easily, not when someone named Tiger is on your tail. Woods, who had won his fourth Masters two months earlier in an epic duel with Chris DiMarco, looked liked he'd played himself out of contention for the second leg of the Grand Slam after starting his final round bogey-bogey. That left him eight strokes behind third-round leader Retief Goosen, who was just beginning his final 18 holes.

"After that start, I'm sure most people wrote me off," Woods said.

And why not? Facing that kind of deficit with as tough as No. 2 was playing, the gap seemed insurmountable even for the incomparable Woods. But the winner of nine major championships was focusing on a more simplistic goal. "If I could somehow post even par, that might be able to sneak my way into a playoff," he said.

Woods would need help and he got plenty. Goosen had won his two previous U.S. Opens at two of the toughest venues in recent years, Southern Hills in 2001 and Shinnecock in 2004, where he carded a final-round 1-over-71 to beat Phil Mickelson by a stroke on a day when the field averaged 78.7.

Capturing his third U.S. Open seemed only a formality after Goosen chipped and putted his way to a three-stroke lead after 54 holes. His shiny red 3-under-par offered little evidence he would close with one of the worst rounds of his career.

It began with a double-bogey on the second hole, followed by bogeys on 3, 5 and 6. By then, his lead was gone, but not his poor play. He finished with an 81, leaving him tied for 11th.

"I couldn't make a putt to save my life and that was pretty much the end of the story," Goosen said. "If I didn't misread it, I had the wrong pace. I haven't putted this badly for a long time."

The South African wasn't the only contender rendered putt drunk. His playing partner Jason Gore, a Nationwide Tour player, ballooned to an 84 after starting the day three shots behind Goosen.

Built more like a linebacker than a golfer, the 31-year-old from Valencia, Calif., became the people's choice after climbing up from being 818th ranked in the world to a share of the lead after 36 holes. But the fairy tale ended on Sunday. "I just didn't swing (the clubs) well and I didn't make any putts," Gore said of his final round. "But it was still awesome. The whole deal was overwhelming and I can't wait to try it again."

Olin Browne, another qualifier, was also three shots back after 54 holes. But he managed only an 80 on Sunday. Browne, however, had a front-row view of excellence, playing the final round alongside Campbell.

With much of the weekend attention on Goosen, Gore, Browne and a lurking Woods, Campbell was hardly noticed until he found himself leading the tournament after an even-par front nine left him 1-over. "I was sandwiched there just doing my own thing, patiently waiting and waiting," Campbell said.

Truth is Campbell had been waiting 10 years to recapture the magic he experienced at the 1995 British Open, where he owned the 54-hole lead before finishing third.

In the decade since, he battled unfulfilled potential and wavering confidence. He fell as low at 371st in the world in 1997 and climbed as high as 14th in 2001. There was a wrist injury that threatened his career, an ill-fated attempt at playing the PGA Tour in 2003, and persistent doubts that had him contemplating giving up the game.

"I remember throwing my golf bag across the room in a hotel room one time," he said. "I thought this is it, it's all over. I was about to get an ax and chop them up in two pieces and throw them away. But my wife (Julie) was very supportive. She believed in me and got me going again."

Campbell was going strong by the time he reached the back nine on Sunday. He birdied the par-4 10th and added another at the par-3 12th. The lead was his, but there were roars ahead. Woods was mounting a charge.

A distant 5-over par after his two opening bogeys, Woods stopped the bleeding with birdies at the par-5 fourth hole and the par-4 seventh. After a bogey on the ninth, he made birdies at the par-5 10th and the par-4 11th to get to 2-over. When he drained a 5-footer on the par-3 15th, he trailed Campbell by two strokes.

"I heard the roars when Tiger birdied 15," Campbell said. "I knew what was going on."

Many have crumbled at the sound of those roars, but Woods couldn't get any closer. He missed a five-footer to save par on the 16th and three-putted the 17th. "I didn't feel comfortable with my putter all week," said Woods, who finished runner-up in a major for the second time. "It was frustrating because I could never get the speed right. If you can't get the speed right, you can't get the line right because speed determines line."

Campbell had few problems with speed and line. He drained a tournament-high 16 birdies, the final one coming on the par-3 17th, where he had chipped in from the bunker for birdie on Saturday. This time he drained a 20-foot putt to give him a three-stroke lead going to the final hole.

"The 17th hole will always be in my mind forever," Campbell said. "I played it in, I think, nine shots, three birdies and a par. If I ever design a golf course, 17 will be in it: same distance, same dimensions of the green, same."

By the time he arrived at the 18th green, the celebration had begun. A three-putt bogey left him at even-par for the tournament, the first time a U.S. Open champion failed to break par since 1998.

It was time to let the emotions pour out, the years of struggle, the doubts, the rededication to his game and all those people in New Zealand. "I could feel them, how proud they were of me," Campbell said.

He thought of Charles, he thought of his mother, his dad and his sister, who were in New Zealand, his wife and kids, who were in England, and his grandmother, who was watching from the heavens.

"She passed away when I was 16," Campbell said. "She said to me, 'Michael, you will change people's lives.' She instilled confidence in me. "I know she's with me right now."

Right there on Pinehurst No.2, where the perfect U.S. Open venue produced a special U.S. Open champion.

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