As we get ready for this week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, let’s do a mental exercise together.
Close your eyes and imagine that for 100 years (and more, in some cases), your sport has fixated on certain marquee events – four of them, in the present day. Imagine that no matter how much success you have in your career, no matter how many millions you earn or how many minor events you win, or how high you rise in the world rankings, you’ll inevitably be judged by your performance in these four events.
Imagine that if you don’t win any, and you’re an otherwise skilled player, your failure will be all that they talk about. Imagine that if you win three of the four, but can’t win the last, it will dominate media discussion every year at the same time. Imagine the pressure, the stakes, and the swirling thoughts about legacy that eat you alive. Imagine the paralysis, and how it combines with a solitary sport that demands total concentration and punishes even one bad mistake with a kind of sadistic excess.
Now imagine that when you approach these events, you don’t treat them as ulcer-inducing anxiety nightmares. Imagine you approach them as opportunities. Imagine that, in a leap of perception that perhaps nobody in golf history has been able to pull off to the same extent, you think of them as easier than a minor event. Imagine that while everyone else flounders, and worries, and grinds, you float down the fairways as if the devil himself couldn’t weigh you down.
Congratulations: You’ve just imagined yourself as Brooks Koepka.
The secret to Koepka’s thinking, and thus the secret to his success in Majors, is no longer a secret. In fact, it’s a pretty simple formula, and he’s not hiding it:
1. Unlike a “normal” PGA or European Tour event, the Majors either feature fewer players (the Masters) or have a significant number of guys who just can’t win (the rest). From the beginning, you’re facing about half the number of legitimate competitors.
2. Of those remaining, another half will simply have a bad week.
3. Of those remaining, another half (or more) will succumb to pressure.
Which means that if you’re a touring professional in good form, and you can manage your nerves, you’ll probably have fewer than 20 people to really beat in order to capture a Major.
Koepka believes all this – he’s said it, explicitly – and the proof is in the pudding. He’s now won four of the last eight majors he’s entered, which is an incredible streak by any measure, but which is made even more jaw-dropping by the fact that in that same time period, he’s only won one other event.
The quick math on that is: four for eight at Majors (with two other close calls), one for 34 otherwise.
Clearly, Koepka’s game is designed for certain layouts that we see more frequently at majors, and clearly he doesn’t just have a steady nerve under pressure – he actually plays better. But we can’t deny the truth of what he says, which is that by really analyzing the majors, and by identifying the opportunity they present in a way nobody has ever done before, Koepka exists on a different mental plane. This outside-the-box thinking has made him the best player in the sport.
Compare, quickly, to Phil Mickelson, who will come into this week’s contest at Pebble Beach looking to complete the career grand slam, but who has six runner-up finishes throughout his career at the US Open, and, judging by his “pick up my own putt” meltdown at Shinnecock last year, can’t overcome this last, greatest mental hurdle.
Or compare to Rory McIlroy, who has admitted that when the Masters rolls around each year, and he attempts to finish his own career slam, he’s overcome by the stress. Or compare to the Lee Westwoods, who have spent a lifetime never being able to crack the code, or to Justin Rose/Adam Scott/Dustin Johnson, superlative players who have only conquered the demons once.
Set against these rivals, Koepka’s mental edge is even more stark: In short, he surpasses them all in pure belief.
So yes, BK’s your top dog this weekend. But here are four other picks for Pebble Beach.
Do I even have to explain this? Last weekend, at the Canadian Open, he shot a final round 61-61!!! to take the title in a landslide, and that 61 could easily have been a 59 if not for a couple late bogeys. It was also immediately preceded by a 64, 66, and 67, which tells us something important: Rory is hot.
When he’s won Majors in his career, especially in 2014, he’s won then in spurts, and it’s always when he hits a torrid peak. The torrid peak is here, and this ain’t Augusta: Rory can shoot for the moon. Even with Koepka looming, he deserves to be the co-favorite.
A lot of people are going to point to the fact that Phil Mickelson has won at Pebble Beach five times, including this year, but there’s a problem: Phil Mickelson is ice cold. With four missed cuts in his last seven events, there’s no reason to think he’s going to break through this weekend. Snedeker, on the other hand…yes, this is your “experience plus form” pick.
He’s won twice at Pebble, and he’s rounding into shape with two top-20s at the PGA Championship the Charles Schwab Challenge, and a T-4 in Canada last weekend. He’s a lock for the top 10 at worst in a tournament where Paddy’s playing 10 places before tee off.
What is life without sentiment? Graeme McDowell is the ultimate sentimental pick, but he’s also got some results that deserve recognition: He won in the Dominican Republics (among an admittedly weak field), he hasn’t missed a cut all season, and he just finished T8 in Canada to secure his Open Championship spot in his hometown of Royal Portrush.
McDowell is smart, funny, and crafty, and as he approaches one of his last great shots to win another US Open. I say: why not?
The resurgence is happening…slowly, but it’s happening. Worth a flyer at the odds.
*Odds correct at time of publishing