A look at seven storylines to follow this wee at Pebble Beach Golf Links for the 119th edition of the U.S. Open.
Some of the juiciest storylines include Brooks Koepka‘s attempt at a three-peat; Tiger Woods‘ potential 16th major title; Phil Mickelson‘s last best chance at the career grand slam; Rory McIlroy‘s aim to bust his major victory drought; Jordan Spieth looks to break through to the winner’s circle after a two-year dryspell; DJ seeks second U.S. Open title at a familiar place; and the best players who could win their maiden major trophy, headlined by Rickie Fowler and Patrick Cantlay.
1. The Major Question: Can Brooks Be Stopped?
Brooks Koepka wins majors. It’s what he does. Four of the past nine majors on Tour (one of which he did not start) have been won by the 29-year-old Koepka, who has asserted himself as the modern day King of the Majors.
As for the U.S. Open? He is the two-time defending champion. He won the 2017 Open at Erin Hills, an incongruous score-fest where he tied the all-time event record by reaching 16-under, four strokes better than his closest competitor. Then, showing versatility by also taking a traditional U.S. Open set-up, Koepka won last year’s event at the brutally-difficult Shinnecock Hills, as his 1-over final score was one better than Tommy Fleetwood.
In the most recently-held major, Koepka won last month’s PGA Championship, the second year in a row he won THAT major. With that win he became the first player in Tour history to be the back-to-back defending champion at two majors, at the same time. If he is able to pull off the three-peat at the U.S. Open this week, he will become the first since Willie Anderson won his third straight in 1905. Since 1952, Curtis Strange (1988 and 1989) is the only other golfer to even win two in a row. The U.S. Open is a very difficult event to figure out, but Brooks seems to have somehow cracked the code.
Rightfully ranked No. 1 in the OWGR, Koepka will attempt to continue a phenomenal 2019 season this week that has seen him win twice and finish runner-up twice. In addition to winning the PGA Championship, he also finished co-runner-up to Tiger Woods at The Masters, being the last player in the field effectively eliminated before Tiger was able to coast on 18.
Strangely, Koepka has only two career victories in non-majors, and he finished T50 at last week’s RBC Canadian Open, but something clicks for him in majors. He is the current favorite coming into the week, which should surprise nobody.
2. Phil’s White Whale and His Career Grand Slam Quest
Phil Mickelson has undeniably had an incredible career as a professional golfer. In a Hall of Fame PGA Tour career, he has won 44 times, which ranks ninth all time, and has amassed five major championships, also ranked No. 9 all time. With all his ups though, there is one thing Phil has not conquered, and he has made it clear for a long time that it is what he wants most: to win a U.S. Open. Mickelson has famously finished runner-up at the U.S. Open SIX times without a victory. And he is running out of time.
Fortunately for Phil, the U.S. Open could not be coming to Pebble Beach at a better time. Mickelson has won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am five times, including this year’s version when he won by three strokes over Paul Casey. Phil, like any other big-time PGA Tour golfer will downplay the significant, pointing out (correctly) that a major plays much, much differently than a regular PGA Tour event, but it cannot hurt Phil that he has so much confidence on this course.
Among his five major championships are wins at The Masters, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship, meaning he is just a U.S. Open away from completing the career grand slam, something that has only been done by five golfers in Tour history.
Making the Phil story potentially even greater this week? If he FINALLY wins the U.S. Open, he will have won it on his birthday, as he turns 49 years old on Sunday, which would also make him the oldest golfer to ever win a major championship. He has played poorly since winning the Pebble Beach event in February, but this is the U.S. Open. He will be ready to go.
3. Tiger’s Chase and His Good Feelings at Pebble
This week, the most popular golfer in the history of golf heads back into action, pursuing one of the most popular records in golf: Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championship victories. Tiger Woods, now 43 years old, ended an 11-year majorless drought in April when he won The Masters, the 15th major of his career.
The luster of the new Tiger-mania dulled some when he missed the cut at last month’s PGA Championship, but a bit of that failure has been imputed by his perhaps poor decision to not play an event in the month between. Since the PGA, Tiger has played once, finishing T9 at The Memorial Tournament.
Tiger has won the U.S. Open three times, with the most recent coming in 2008, when he famously defeated Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole of a Monday playoff, despite a badly-injured knee. The first of those three U.S. Opens, however, was THE major.
Of Tiger’s 81 career wins (one short of Sam Snead’s all-time record) and 15 major championships, one always gets mentioned first when discussing his career greatness: the 2000 U.S. Open, which happened to take place right here at Pebble Beach. That was the major where Tiger looked his most unstoppable, winning by an unconscionable 15 strokes, reaching 12-under for the week when nobody else was able to better 3-OVER. No event has better illustrated the pure dominance that was the prime Tiger Woods era.
Tiger is currently ranked fifth in the world, has top 10 finishes in three of his past four events, leads the Tour in greens in regulation, has a phenomenal history at Pebble, and got a BIG major monkey off his back two months ago. He is as good a bet to be hoisting a trophy on Sunday.
4. Red-Hot Rory
When Rory McIlroy reached a record 16-under-par at the 2011 U.S. Open to win by a absurd eight shots to win his first major, the consensus was that it would lead to many more major championships. He would add the 2012 PGA Championship, the 2014 Open Championship, and then the 2014 PGA Championship, but surprisingly, the man who just turned 30 last month has not won another since.
That is not to say he has not been close, he has nine top-10s in majors since that 2014 PGA, but surprisingly seems to have a mental block with these events now. However, a stellar 2019 season that has Rory back to No. 3 in the world rankings has him again looking like he can do anything.
That was certainly on display when he won THE PLAYERS Championship earlier this year, and even more so this past weekend, when while tied for the 54-hole lead at the RBC Canadian Open, he absolutely exploded out of the gate, and posted a 9-under 61 that was very nearly a 59 and won him the event by seven strokes.
It was the most “vintage Rory” he has looked in some time. It will likely be mentioned a lot in the coming days that he has missed his last three U.S. Open cuts, but the man who leads the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee, tee-to-green, and total has to be considered among the favorites at Pebble Beach this week. So many droughts on Tour seemed to have ended over the past two seasons, do not be surprised if the Rory Major Drought is the next.
5. Spieth Surging… Sort Of
Jordan Spieth took the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, winning by one stroke over frequent bridesmaids Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. It was his second major championship of his season, and the second of his young career.
Now four years later, Spieth is still young (25), but the 10-time Tour winner and 3-time major champion has seen his profile drop off considerably with his surprising struggles over his last two seasons.
However, Spieth has suddenly found himself in contention in three straight events, and is giving reason to believe that he is back on his Hall of Fame track. But while those three results, a T3, a T8, and a T7 respectively, are much, much better than what he had been posting up to that point in the season, he is still struggling to put four rounds together, seemingly playing his worst when he gets into contention.
For example, at last month’s PGA Championship, he shot 69-66 in the first two rounds to get into the final Sunday pairing with Koepka, but faded quickly in that third round, eventually shooting a 72. He played just well enough on Sunday to finish third.
The talent is undeniably there, and his confidence seems to be surging again, but is he in a place where he can contend again in a U.S. Open? He will be paired with Tiger the first two days, so everything he does will be watched closely.
6. Don’t Forget DJ
The last time the U.S. Open was held at Pebble Beach (2010), a then 25-year-old Dustin Johnson was the 54-hole leader, but a shockingly poor final round 82(!) knocked him into a tie for 8th place, something that became an extreme microcosm of his young career, which was often marked by a difficulty to close in majors. He finally got the major off his back in 2016 when he took the U.S. Open at Oakmont, but since then? Nothing.
He has 20 career PGA Tour victories and 17 top 10s in majors, but with just one victory on the biggest stage, he is again facing the pressure. DJ finished runner-up at the first two major championships of the season, the latter of which gave him the last leg of the career runner-up Grand Slam. Perhaps ironically, he is currently No. 2 in the world rankings.
Johnson has the Tour’s best scoring average, and has a phenomenal history at other Pebble Beach events. Among his last five starts in this event, he has a win, a runner-up, a third place, and a fourth place. He is among the favorites, and for good reason, but if he gets into contention again, can he find a way to finish out front?
7. First Time Major Seekers
With such a prodigious amount of talent on the modern PGA Tour, with every major championship there is a bevy of tremendous players looking for their first major championship victory, as not everyone can be Brooks Koepka. This year is no different.
Standing atop the “best players without a major” list is the popular Rickie Fowler. Now 30 years old, Fowler is facing increasing pressure to finally come out on top in one of these. However, Fowler still would need ten more majorless years to match Matt Kuchar, the current leader in the FedExCup Standings who is still looking for major No. 1 at 40 years of age.
Among the younger contingency, who a victory appears on the horizon is Patrick Cantlay, who contended late at this year’s Masters, finished T3 at last month’s PGA Championship, and won his last start, at The Memorial Tournament just two weeks ago. The 27-year-old has made an unbelievable career comeback, one which had been marked by injury and tragedy since he finished T21 at the 2011 U.S. Open as an amateur.
At world No. 8, Cantlay is now the highest-ranked player in the world without a major (although he has only made eight major starts as a pro).
Other big names looking for that first major include Xander Schauffele, who has finished T5-T6 in the past two U.S. Opens respectively, and was runner-up at the most recent versions of The Open Championship and The Masters, Bryson DeChambeau, who won four times on Tour last year, and Jon Rahm, who at just 24 years of age, has three PGA Tour victories, three more internationally, and finished T23 in this event as an amateur in 2016.
There is also Tony Finau, Paul Casey, Tommy Fleetwood, Ian Poulter, Hideki Matsuyama, etc. This is a phenomenal group of especially-hungry players.
Cross posted from The U.S. Open Starter