- Ivan Maisel, College Football Senior Writer
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PINEHURST, N.C. -- He overtook a leader who had made the U.S. Open his own playground. He stared down a challenge from the world's best golfer. He sank a football field's worth of putts. And none of those achievements begin to describe the journey that Michael Campbell made to win the 105th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 by two strokes.
"It's unbelievable," the 36-year-old said. "That's all I can say."
First of all, he is from New Zealand, which is to golf what the state of North Carolina is to rugby. The three most popular sports in New Zealand are rugby, rugby and rugby.
The Kiwis gave us Bob Charles, the left-hander who won the 1963 British Open. After Charles, their most prominent contribution to golf before Sunday had been Steve Williams, Tiger Woods' caddie.
Second, in 1998, only three years after he nearly stole the British Open as an unknown -- Campbell led through 54 holes before narrowly missing the playoff between John Daly and Costantino Rocca -- Campbell's golf cratered so badly that a round of 80 would have caused him to buy drinks for the house.
"Back in '98, I was going to throw the game away and sell golf balls," he said Sunday night. "I remember throwing my golf club or golf bag across the room in a hotel room one time. 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."
Third, after Campbell rebuilt his golf game well enough to win six times on the European Tour, in 2003 he came to play on the PGA Tour. In 14 events, he missed nine cuts and promptly returned his family home to Brighton, England, and rejoined the Euros.
Last, Campbell wouldn't even have entered the Open if the United States Golf Association hadn't held a qualifying tournament in Europe this year for the first time. Campbell shot 139 at Walton Heath, near London, and tied for the last of the nine available slots. He became the first qualifier to win the Open since Steve Jones in 1996.
All of that explains why Campbell had the steel within him to shoot a final-round 69 for a 72-hole score of 280. His only sign of nerves Sunday were his five trips to the port-a-potty. Campbell ducked his head under more ropes than Mike Tyson.
It also helps to explain why no one outside those ropes considered him a serious contender for the Open. The other reason is the rich story lines that developed over the first three rounds.
Campbell began the round tied for fourth, four strokes behind defending champion Retief Goosen, a man who has spent the last five years proving himself immune to Open pressure.
Goosen's playing partner, Jason Gore, with an aw-shucks smile fronting a Hummer-sized frame, captured the imagination of golf fans at Pinehurst and across the nation.
Lurking six strokes behind was Woods, a two-time Open champion hoping to gain the second leg of the Grand Slam.
"There was little old me, just in there, hanging just in between some great players, the world's best players," Campbell said. "And I snuck in there, and without anybody noticing, really, I won."
Goosen went all saltine on us Sunday, crumbling to a final-round 81. He wasn't even high contender. Gore shot 84 and tumbled from a tie for second to a tie for 49th. Olin Browne, tied with Gore through three rounds and paired with Campbell, shot 80 and finished tied for 23rd.
On Saturday evening, Campbell suggested that the only way to catch Goosen would be to "sink all your 30-footers." It sounded hyperbolic when he said it. Who knew he meant it?
Campbell dropped a 25-footer for par at the 10th hole to remain even. He made a par save out of a bunker at the 11th. He made a 30-footer for birdie at the 12th to get back into the red numbers. As he stayed at 1 under, every other contender on the leaderboard fell away.
Everyone, that is, but Woods, who bogeyed his first two holes to fall to 5 over, then suddenly kicked into whatever gear he has that no one else has.
"I figured if I could just get to even par for the total that I might, if I was lucky, be able to get into a playoff," Woods said.
Woods got as close as 1 over, and he would have gone even lower, too, if he hadn't left his putter back at Isleworth. Woods led the field with 54 greens hit in regulation. He finished tied for 80th in putting -- next-to-last -- with 128 putts. Just as he did here six years ago, Woods missed a short par putt at the par-3 17th that sealed his fate.
"If I putt just normal, I'm looking pretty good," Woods said.
When Campbell came to the 17th hole, he coolly rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt, extending his lead to four strokes. Woods birdied 18, and Campbell bogeyed it for the final margin. As soon as Campbell putted out, he put his hands on his hat, and then shielded his eyes as he teared up.
After he walked off the green, he found Williams waiting for him. Their friendship goes back to their schoolboy days in Wellington.
"You've made a lot of people back home very, very proud," Williams told him.
Williams felt so expansive that he lifted his own rule and spoke to the media, referring to Campbell's victory as "the single greatest moment in New Zealand sports."
Campbell walked into his press conference, carrying the silver Havemeyer Trophy in his left hand like it was grocery bag. He placed it on the table beside him, and began looking at the names on the trophy.
"Ben Hogan has been my hero ever since I started playing this game a long time ago, and I can see his name one, two, three, four times," Campbell said. "And mine's going to be down there somewhere. Arnold Palmer. Nicklaus."
Campbell snapped out of his reverie.
"Sorry, guys, I'm just diverging here. Oh, man, it's just unbelievable. That's all I can say."
New Zealand is 17 hours ahead of Pinehurst, so there's a good chance the Monday lunch crowd at the pubs didn't make it back to work. The country is abuzz about the All-Blacks, who play a big test match next weekend against the Lions, a team from England, Ireland and Scotland.
If you took the passion devoted in the United States to the Yankees, Notre Dame football, and North Carolina basketball, you might get a fraction of what Kiwis feel about the All-Blacks, their national rugby team.
That buzz will abate for a day or so.
"I think for the first time I actually made the front page of the newspapers back home with the All-Blacks," Campbell said. "They've been champions and heroes of mine, and to knock them off their pedestal for this one week means a lot to me."
When Campbell missed his short par putt at the 72nd hole and fell from 1 under to even, he provided his own tribute to New Zealand. The scoreboard turned all black.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Ivan.Maisel@espn3.com.
Once so down that he considered chopping his clubs with an ax, Michael Campbell is now the U.S. Open champion.