After the run of problems encountered by the USGA with the U.S. Open in recent years, they return to the one site seemingly immune from the recent snafus regarding course selection/set-up or application of the rules.
This year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach features multiple story lines featuring the game’s elite players, starting with Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka and including the likes of Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in co-starring roles.
But as anticipated as this U.S. Open is for the possibilities of any of those five players claiming the trophy on Sunday, given recent history, there is also serious concern about how the USGA will step on those potential story lines this time.
The USGA has reportedly altered the character of the Pebble Beach layout by significantly narrowing the fairways, which will likely not draw much criticism. How deep they grow the rough will be a huge factor, along with the speed of the small, sloping greens that are not among the smoothest found at traditional U.S. Open venues due to their poa annua surfaces.
Even if everything goes right on the course and there are no rules controversies, the possibility exists that the Sunday night prime time broadcast of the final round on Fox will conflict with a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals on ABC. In that case, the big loser will be the nation’s sports fans regardless of the outcome of the ratings battle and who gets to lift the trophies.
After his somewhat surprising triumph in the Masters, when he won a major for the first time in his career after trailing after 54 holes, the main focus (as it always is) will be on Woods, who obliterated the field at Pebble Beach in the 2000 U.S. Open, but played an indifferent final round when it returned in 2010 and tied for fourth with Mickelson, three shots behind Graeme McDowell.
Woods has played just twice since Augusta, missing the cut in the PGA Championship at Bethpage and managing a back door top 10 at the Memorial. He has avoided Pebble Beach for some time due to his distaste for the bumpy greens and dislike for the pro-am format, and may not find the narrower fairways to his liking. Don’t expect a Masters repeat, but then we didn’t expect that one.
Koepka has won the last two U.S. Opens and the last two PGAs, and you have to figure that the law of averages is working against him. Or does it? He has been magnificent in the majors since his first U.S. victory in 2017 at Erin Hills, and won again on a more traditional venue at Shinnecock last year. He is only a missed putt or two at Augusta from shooting for his third straight major in 2019 and sixth since ’17.
Johnson won back-to-back at Pebble in 2009 and ’10 and has a pair of runner-up finishes in the Pro-Am since, most recently last year. But the memories remain fresh of his 2010 final round meltdown in the U.S. Open, which he began with a 3-shot lead before shooting an 82. He comes into the Open off back-to-back runner-up finishes in the first two majors of 2019, playing well on Sunday in both.
McIlroy, a former U.S. Open champion, has been the best player in the game this year with nine top 10s in first 11 PGA Tour starts of 2019, including a win in the Players. He thrust himself into the top of the conversation of U.S, Open favorites Sunday with a 64-61 weekend finish to win the Canadian Open in a runaway, his 10th top 10 on the season.
Then there’s Mickelson, who is facing what his likely his last legitimate shot at winning a U.S., Open after six career runner-up finishes in the championship. He won at Pebble for the fifth time earlier this year and has finished at least second three of the last four years in the Pro-Am. Since his victory in early February, his best finish is a nondescript tie for 18th in the Masters and he’s missed four of his last six cuts, displaying limited ability to find a fairway. A career Grand Slam for Phil would be wonderful, but there’s no way he’s winning a U.S. Open driving it like he’s been.
There will be at least 15 golfers with ties to Georgia in the U.S. Open field, with two former Georgia Bulldogs hoping to earn last minute spots as first alternates from their Sectional qualifiers.
The leading contender among the state’s contingent, and one of the likeliest challengers to Tiger, Brooks Dustin and Rory is Matt Kuchar, who continues to lead the FedExCup standings and is one of just three players on the PGA Tour this season with two victories. After tying for fourth in the Canadian Open, Kuchar has finished 12th or better in six of his last seven starts, including a pair of runner-up showings. Kuchar tied for sixth in the 2010 Open at Pebble and has four finishes between 12th and 16th in the event since, but has no recent record of success in the Pro-Am.
Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, has not come close to sniffing the lead in any event this season since a disastrous final round in the WGC event in Shanghai last October, and has done nothing of note the last three months. But he has played well in recent U.S. Opens, tying for fourth last year, and has a pair of top 10s in the Pro-Am, the last in 2016.
Bubba Watson has two Masters among his 12 PGA Tour victories, but his only top 10 in the U.S. Open came back in 2007, and he has mostly avoided Pebble Beach during his career. He got off to a solid start in 2019, but hasn’t played much of late and missed the cut in the PGA after a T12 in Augusta.
Zach Johnson also has two majors among his 12 career titles, winning at Augusta National and St. Andrews. He did not play especially well in the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble and has only played in the Pro-Am once since. Other than his two “home” tournaments (Sea Island GC and Sea Pines), he has been invisible in 2018-19 and doesn’t appear likely to re-emerge any time soon, although Pebble would seem to be a good opportunity.
Kevin Kisner hasn’t done much since defeating Kuchar in the finals of the WGC Match Play, but has a one good result in recent years in both the U.S. Open (T12 in 2015) and the Pro-Am (T10 in ’17). Kisner has contended in two of the other three majors the past few years, and Pebble could be a course in his wheelhouse under difficult conditions.
Charles Howell was enjoying an outstanding 2018-19 season through the Masters, but in his last five starts has missed three cuts and withdrawn once. He played well for 36 holes in the PGA, but fell back on the weekend, and has no record of success in majors throughout his career. His best U.S. Open finish was a T18 ion 2002, and his best showing in the Pro-Am was also that year.
Keith Mitchell outdueled Koepka and Rickie Fowler to win the Honda Classic earlier this year, getting him into the Masters, PGA and now the U.S. Open. The long hitting, second year PGA Tour member has not returned to obscurity after his victory, recording top 10s the next week at Bay Hill and later at Quail Hollow after making the cut in his first Masters.
Luke List, who lost a playoff to Koepka in last year’s Honda Classic, has had an up-and-down season, with his best showing of 2019 a sixth place finish in the PGA at Bethpage Black, a course that may be better suited to List’s power game than Pebble Beach. In his fifth season on the PGA Tour, List is getting closer to his first win.
Roberto Castro has played well at Pebble Beach and is coming off a strong showing in the U.S Open qualifier at Hawks Ridge. He opened with a 64 in the Canadian Open, but faltered on the back nine Sunday with a chance for at least a top-20 finish. He has missed the cut by just one stroke in three of his five previous U.S. Open starts, and with his accuracy off the tee and quality iron game, could be a factor at Pebble Beach if he can handle the frequently perplexing putting surfaces.
Ollie Schniederjans missed the cut in his first U.S. Open start as a pro last year, but played respectably in his only other appearance as an amateur in 2015. Schniederjans has never played Pebble Beach as a pro, and his lack of familiarity with the course and his Mickelson-ian problems with hitting fairways does not bode well for someone who is trying to end a long stretch of disappointing play.
Chesson Hadley, one of five past or current member of the Georgia Tech golf team in the field, has missed seven of his last nine cuts, not exactly a positive sign coming into a U.S. Open. Patton Kizzire, one of at least four St. Simons Island residents who will tee it up at Pebble Beach, has missed four straight cuts, but was having a solid season until that point, including a top 20 in the Masters.
Recent Georgia Bulldog Sepp Straka has had a few competitive weeks during his rookie season on the PGA Tour, and will be appearing in his first ever major. Brendon Todd, one of at least five former Bulldogs in the field, has had a rollercoaster career on the PGA Tour, but is on a bit of an upswing after a strong showing last month at Quail Hollow, followed by a share of medalist honors in his U.S. Open qualifier in Dallas.
Harris English would add to both the UGA and St. Simons representation in the Open if he gets in as one of a handful of first alternates from Sectional qualifying, as he continues to attempt to work his way out a slump that has lasted for more than a year. Also on the alternate list is recent UGA golfer Jaime Lopez Rivarola, who is playing professionally. English was added to the field Sunday night.
Alpharetta’s Chandler Eaton, who plays on the golf team at Duke, and Georgia Tech’s Noah Norton will be among a large group of amateurs in the U.S Open after advancing from the Sectional qualifier at Hawks Ridge along with Schniederjans and Castro.