Webb Simpson, relying on prayer coming down the stretch and a clutch putter throughout, won the 112thU.S. Open with a final-round 2-under-par 68 Sunday on a course built into a hillside that is very protective of par.
Under a blanket of dense fog that drifted in from the nearby Pacific Ocean, Simpson finished at 1-over-par 281 to beat Graeme McDowell (73) and Michael Thompson (67) by one shot.
In earning his first major championship title, Simpson, who will move to No. 5 in the world golf rankings, became the 15th different player to win in the last 15 majors.
It also was the third time in the last seven years that no one broke par in the U.S. Open. All three times, the winner was in the locker room when the tournament ended.
Jim Furyk (74), who shared the overnight lead with McDowell, didn't make a birdie and slid into a tie for fourth with David Toms (68), Padraig Harrington (68), John Peterson (70) and Jason Dufner (70) at 3 over.
Ernie Els (72), trying to win his third U.S. Open, got as close as one shot but fell back with bogeys on two of his last three holes and finished ninth.
Tiger Woods (73), trying to win his fourth U.S. Open, got off to a miserable start and didn't make a run in the last round. He began with two bogeys and a double-bogey on his first three holes.
"I probably prayed more on the last three holes than I've ever done in my life, and that kept me calm and got me home in 2 under," said Simpson, who earned a degree in religion at Wake Forest. "I'm glad my wife (Dowd) is with me. It was pretty nerve-racking. It was just a cool day. I knew it was a tough course and I just had to do my best out there.
"I needed her with me, because I never felt nerves like I did today. A lot of times I had to hit my legs, because I couldn't really feel them. It was a pleasure to have her here, and I couldn't imagine being here without her."
Simpson, 26, was sitting with Dowd in the clubhouse when McDowell's last-ditch effort to tie him went for naught. McDowell had given himself a chance to tie after a birdie on 17, but his 24-foot putt for birdie on the final hole missed on the left side.
At the start of the week, Simpson, a two-time winner last year on the PGA Tour who finished second on the money list, wasn't expecting to be sitting in the clubhouse awaiting the outcome. Having missed the cut in his two previous starts - the Players Championship and the Memorial - Simpson was struggling with his game and his swing when he arrived in the Bay Area.
And with the 7,170-yard, par-70 course offering little relief - it played to an average of 73.84 - Simpson's chances to win his first major seemed slight.
But he said he finally found his swing during a third-round 68 that left him four shots out of the lead heading into the final round. Using a string of one-putts in the middle of the final round to reel off four birdies in five holes starting at No. 6, Simpson came home without a blemish on his card on the back nine to stay in the mix. He took his only outright lead of the tournament on his final hole with a ticklish up-and-down for par on the slanted 18th, then waited for the last groups to finish.
"I got here Monday, and I think every day my game got a little better," Simpson said. "I hit it really well (Saturday). The first few days I putted well and hung in there. Yesterday I hit it well and made me get excited for today. Today I had the best warm-up I had the whole week before the round.
"This is only my second U.S. Open and so I told myself don't get too excited, don't try to win. You've got to go out there and try to make pars, and that's what I did. And luckily I made some putts, and got a couple under out of it.
" ... I never really wrapped my mind around winning. This place is so demanding, and so all I was really concerned about was keeping the ball in front of me and making pars. You hear all the guys say it, but it's so true, the course is so hard you don't know if you're going to make three or four bogeys in a row. Today I was 2 over through 5, but I didn't think anything of it because I knew I had 7 coming up and a few other birdie holes in the back. I definitely thought about winning and wanted to win, but I was just trying to keep my mind focused on the hole that I was playing and just somehow make pars."
Olympic is known as the graveyard of champions because proven major winners who were poised to win the U.S. Open have always lost to the underdog. One of those wasArnold Palmer in 1966, when he lost a seven-shot lead on the back nine.
Perhaps it was only fitting that Simpson went to Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship.
"Arnold has been so good to me," Simpson said. "Just the other day, I read that story and thought about it. He's meant so much to me and Wake Forest. Hopefully, I can get a little back for him and make him smile."
McDowell struggled with his tee ball and missed the fairway on eight consecutive holes in one stretch. But the 2010 U.S. Open champion, who has street fighter in his DNA and felt right at home in the Northern Ireland-like conditions, remained in the tournament with clutch play down the back nine.
"There's a mixture of emotions inside me right now - obviously disappointment, deflation, pride," McDowell said. "But mostly there's just frustration, just because I hit three fairways today. That's the U.S. 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.
"But today has reinforced to me that I can compete and win more major championships. It's been a frustrating five or six weeks for me, but I knew in my heart that my game was better than my results were showing and it was just great to come in this week, prepare, put it up there in a major championship, try my best and compete. I don't know what it is about these setups that I enjoy them as much as I do, but they certainly do appeal to me.
"The tougher the golf course, the better for me."
Furyk was visible disappointed after the round and needed 10 minutes to collect his thoughts and calm down. At various times during the final round, he had a two-stroke lead. He kept his advantage with a 40-foot par putt on the 12th and went to the par-5 16th seemingly in control of the tournament. But a snap hook left him in the trees, a punch-out left him 300 yards from the green, and he couldn't pull out a par.
His last best chance went wayward on the 17th when he wound up in a bunker after his second shot to the par 5 and couldn't get up and down. On the final hole, needing a birdie to tie, he badly pulled his short iron into a greenside bunker and had no chance of holing it.
"I had my opportunities and my chances, and it was right there," said Furyk, who won this title in 2003. "It was, on that back nine, my tournament to win, and I felt if I shot even par, 1 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.
"I had my opportunities early, too. I had good birdie putts at 4 and 7 and wasn't able to convert on either one."
Woods knew his chances of winning were gone 40 minutes into his round when he began with bogeys on his first two holes and a double-bogey on his third. He added bogeys on holes five and six but came home with three birdies to salvage something from his round.
"I just got off to a horrific start. Unfortunately, I put myself out of it," Woods said. "But there are a lot of positives I can take out of this week. Overall, the way I struck the ball and controlled it is something I can take forward."
Thompson, the first-round leader with the tournament's low round of 66, shot 67 to get the clubhouse lead at 2 over. It was his second runner-up finish in a big event at Olympic Club: He lost to Colt Knost in the U.S. Amateur five years ago.
"I knew from the beginning of the week, if I can just shoot right around 1 over every day I would be happy," said Thompson, who held a three-stroke lead after the first round. "I didn't expect at all to shoot under par. Then to go out and shoot way under par on a U.S. Open is kind of unbelievable."
Contributing: The Associated Press