Golf’s Majors head west this week for the 119th US Open at a course synonymous with both stunning scenery and golfing excellence. Yet not for nothing is the US Open considered a case study in the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest. It is never a tournament for the faint-hearted, supplying golf’s elite with the toughest set-up of the year and the most gruelling test of mental toughness they will face all season.
Take it to northern California where the ocean breeze can bring in a chill and fog and the endurance factor is taken up a notch or two. Whoever wins come Sunday night will have earned their title. Trying to work out in advance which big beast is top of the food chain is difficult, so let’s try and make that job a little easier with 5 key pointers.
1. The Course
As iconic as it is familiar to PGA Tour players, who visit annually to play the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where this 7,075-yard, par-71 layout is part of a three-course rotation, hosting two of the four rounds. Yet anyone looking to the PGA Tour stop for indicators this week should proceed with caution. True, Tiger Woods won the Pro-Am in 2000 before returning four months later to win the US Open by 15 strokes, while Dustin Johnson won the PGA Tour event in 2010 and led that year’s US Open after 54 holes, only to shoot a final-round 82.
Past Pebble Beach Pro-Am winners in this week’s field:
Phil Mickelson (2019, 2012, 2007, 2005, 1998)
Jordan Spieth (2017)
Brandt Snedeker (2015, 2013)
Jimmy Walker (2014)
Dustin Johnson (2010, 2009)
Tiger Woods (2000)
Yet the course plays markedly differently from one time of the year to the next. Played in February, ATT&T pin positions for a field split between pros and the usual collection of celebs and CEO’s are easier than the ones being plotted for a US Open while the greens will be faster, the fairways firmer and the rough thicker this week. As Graeme McDowell noted recently, this is not a one-dimensional challenge, nor a course that can be overpowered by the big hitters, with drivers set to be used sparingly to tight fairways. Neither McDowell nor previous Pebble US Open champion Tom Kite were long off the tee, but instead exercised excellent course-management and temperament to get the job done.
Accuracy rather than length off the tee, and dialing in irons approaching small greens will be the keys to victory, so strokes gained: approach the green perhaps a decent pointer to likely contenders.
PGA Tour: Strokes gained: approach the green stats 2019:
Average (US Open entrants in top 10, to end of Memorial Tournament)
1 Henrik Stenson 1.269
2 Sergio Garcia 1.110
3 Keegan Bradley 1.091
4 Hideki Matsuyama 0.900
5 Rory McIlroy 0.878
6 Justin Thomas 0.870
7 Matt Kuchar 0.841
9 Patrick Cantlay 0.823
10 Emiliano Grillo 0.813
2. US Open form
No star will shine brighter this week than Brooks Koepka’s, who arrives at Pebble Beach attempting to match Scotland’s Willie Anderson feat in 1905 of winning three consecutive US Opens. Not only is Koepka, 28, the defending back-to-back champion following his wins at Erin Hills in 2017 and last year at Shinnecock Hills, when he held off Tommy Fleetwood – the world number 1 is coming off a successful title defence at the PGA Championship which means he has now won four of the last eight major championships played.
Nine of the 10 most recent US Open champions (dating back to Lucas Glover in 2009) had previously recorded a top-20 finish in the championship
US Open Most Top-20’s in the last 5 years:
5 – Brooks Koepka – Win (2018), Win (2017), T13 (2016), T18 (2015), T4 (2014)
4 – Dustin Johnson – 3rd (2018), Win (2016), T2 (2015), T4 (2014)
3- Patrick Reed – 4th (2018), T13 (2017), T14 (2015)
3 – Hideki Matsuyama – T16 (2018), T2 (2017), T18 (2015)
3 – Rickie Fowler – T20 (2018), T5 (2017), T2 (2014)
3 – Sergio Garcia – T5 (2016), T18 (2015), T18 (2014)
3 – Adam Scott – T18 (2016), T4 (2015), T9 (2014)
3 – Jason Day – T8 (2016), T9 (2015), T4 (2014)
3 – Brandt Snedeker – T9 (2017), T8 (2015), T9 (2014)
Others with two top-10 US Open finishes (2018-14):
Tommy Fleetwood – 2nd (2018), 4th (2017)
Xander Schauffele – T6 (2018), T5 (2017)
Henrik Stenson – T6 (2018), T4 (2014)
Branden Grace – T5 (2016), T4 (2015)
3. Current Form
As 2019 Major winners, both Koepka and Masters champion Tiger Woods have obvious qualities in this regard coming into Pebble Beach.
Woods (2002) is one of only six players to have won both the Masters and US Open titles in the same year with only Jordan Spieth in 2015 doing the double more recently. All bar one of the winners since 2000 recorded at least a top-three finish on either the PGA or European Tours in the season they went on to win the US Open, the exception being Angel Cabrera in 2007, who posted a tie for fifth.
And of those 19 champions, seven of them completed a prior victory in the same year. Koepka collected his US Open titles having secured a runner-up finish earlier in each of the last two seasons. Current form will be a key ingredient to victory this week.
4. Finally For Phil?
Mickelson’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am victory earlier this year, his fifth in the event, ignited hopes that Lefty may still be able to complete the career grand slam on what will be his 49th birthday this Sunday. He will not need reminding of his US Open-record six seconds, nor that history is firmly against him finally entering the winner’s enclosure.
Only three men have won the US Open in their 40s, Hale Irwin the oldest and most recent in 1990 aged 45 years and 15 days, while the oldest of the last 10 winners was Justin Rose in 2013, aged 32, while their average age is 27.5 years. If Mickelson is to win this weekend he will have to not just buck the trend, but make Major championship history as the oldest ever male major champion.
5. The Ones To Watch
The man to beat, world number one and reigning back-to-back champion in both the US Open and PGA Championship. Tamed Shinnecock Hills last year, remaining calm as all around him were losing their heads as the USGA lost its grip on the Long Island, New York course while last month’s PGA win at Bethpage was a procession for 54 holes and then a demonstration of grace under pressure over the final 18. Matching Willie Anderson’s US Open three in a row of 1903-05 would not be a surprise.
The 2016 champion at Oakmont will not be fazed by his final-round 82 at Pebble in 2010. That was very much the DJ of old and Johnson has the form with two runner-up finishes in the majors already this season and victory at the WGC-Mexico Championship while he also has US Open pedigree with three top threes in his last five starts in addition to that 2016 triumph.
Rebounded magnificently from a missed cut at Memorial to add the Canadian Open on Sunday to his previous 2019 win at The Players triumph. And did so adding a consistently solid putter to his excellent ball striking, transforming being part of a three-way overnight lead into a commanding seven-stroke win with a closing 61. No better man, then, to become the first to win the US Open having won the week before.
Completed the Masters-US Open double in 2002 and returns to the scene of his first and most majestic of three US Open wins in 2000. Ignore the missed PGA Championship cut at Bethpage, he was out of sorts and rusty and has since rebounded with a T9 at Memorial. The Masters vibe is still firmly in play and just like Augusta National, and on top of his resurgent form, Woods has the experience, patience and emotional intelligence to get it done all over again.
What he lacks in pace around the course he makes up for in Majors’ potential having led the Masters on Sunday and finished T3 at the PGA already this season. Cantlay then went on to win the Memorial two weeks ago and break into the world top-10 for the first time, thanks to an excellent and gritty final round. Has the mental toughness and single-mindedness to successfully negotiate the challenges of Pebble Beach.
Remind yourself that Paddy Power is paying out on the top 10 places and then take note of the resurgence of Ireland’s Lowry, winner in Abu Dhabi in January, back into the world’s top-50 and with three recent top-10s on the PGA Tour, including a T2 behind McIlroy in Canada on Sunday. Add that to two US Open top-10s, T9 at Chambers Bay in 2015 and T2 at Oakmont the following year and the in-form Offaly man looks a solid bet.
*Prices correct at time of publishing but are as fluid as DJ’s swing