U.S. Open Starter: Storylines, Power Rankings, Pairings, and Whatnot

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka celebrates with caddy after winning the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, NY. Credit: Getty Images/David Cannon

Hands-down the most difficult test in all of golf, the U.S. Open takes place this week in its usual position in the third week of June, the 119th version of an event that feels less like fun and more like work than anything the elites of the golf world will experience in their lifetimes.

The diabolical geniuses at the USGA, the much-criticized body that runs the U.S. Open, are extremely fortunate this year to have at their molding disposal, Pebble Beach Golf Links, the most famous golf course in the world outside of Augusta, Georgia, for this year’s edition. It would be shocking if Pebble’s 100-year celebration did not end up being one of its most memorable yet.

As usual, there will be 156 players in this year’s field, an intriguing mix of highly-ranked players and highly-regarded amateurs, and of those 156, all eyes will be first on the unflappable Brooks Koepka, a man who apparently cannot be defeated by a major set-up. Koepka is the two-time defending champion of this event, and with FOUR major championships in fewer than 24 months, he has somehow found out how to play the biggest stages in video game mode.

Koepka is far from the only attention-grabber in this year’s field. Phil Mickelson, who has famously finished runner-up in this event six times without a victory, will be exceptionally motivated to take advantage of maybe his last great chance to pull off the career Grand Slam. Winning at a venue he has a long history of success at would be the ultimate 49th birthday present for the man who will be just one year away from Champions Tour eligibility on Sunday. Is it a story that is too good to NOT happen?

Also, Tiger Woods… Pebble Beach… didn’t something happen with that combo once?

The U.S. Open, despite a paucity of red scores that borders on embarrassing for the best in the game, never fails to disappoint from an entertainment perspective. Yet, this one feels special. It is going to be a fun week. Unless you’re actually playing in the event.

The Skinny

Tournament: U.S. Open Championship
Dates: June 13-16, 2019
Where: Pebble Beach, Calif.
Course: Pebble Beach Golf Links
Distance: Par 71, 7075 yards
Architect: Jack Neville, Douglas Grant (1919)
Format: 72-holes, stroke play, 36-hole cut
Purse: $12,500,000
Winning Share: $2,300,000
Defending Champion: Brooks Koepka
Top-10 Betting Favorites: Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Cantlay, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler

History Spotlight

Arnold Palmer staged the greatest comeback in U.S. Open history, erasing a seven-stroke deficit during the final round at Oakmont in 1960. It was Palmer’s only U.S. Open title. Credit: Arnold Palmer

The second-oldest of the four major championships, the U.S Open first teed off as an 11-man, 1-day, 36-hole (nine holes played four times) event in 1895. Held at Newport Country Club, in Newport, Rhode Island, which has a long reputation for being a prime vacation destination for the world’s richest individuals, the event was won by 21-year-old Englishman Horace Rawlins.

Over time, the U.S. Open gained a reputation for being a brutally-worthy test of championship golf, and both the field capacity, and the strength of the field grew precipitously. Nearly every elite player in PGA Tour lure has a U.S. Open Championship victory on their resume, with the most wins being four apiece by Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus.

Tiger Woods is the only player in this year’s field that could join that prestigious four-win pantheon, which would break a tie with Hale Irwin at three U.S. Open wins.

Two time winners include back-to-back defending champion Brooks Koepka, in addition to Alex Smith, John McDermott, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Ralph Guldahl, Cary Middlecoff, Julius Boros, Lee Trevino, Andy North, Curtis Strange, Ernie Els, Lee Janzen, Payne Stewart, and Retief Goosen.

An event famous for a heavy amateur influence, the U.S. Open has been won by an amateur on five occasions, although none since insurance salesman Johnny Goodman pulled off the feat in 1933. The other four wins were all by the legendary Bobby Jones, who was really just an amateur in name only. Jones also finished runner-up on four occasions. Amateurs have rarely played a significant role on the leaderboards in the modern event.

Pebble Beach Golf Links, the host venue of this year’s U.S. Open, is also celebrating its 100th birthday this year, having been established in 1919 by a railroad magnate, and designed by Jack Neville and Douglas Grant.

Pebble Beach as hosted the U.S. Open on five previous occasions, with the first edition being won by Jack Nicklaus in 1972. Nicklaus finished runner-up to Tom Watson when the U.S. Open came back to Pebble in 1982. Tom Kite was a two-stroke winner in 1992, the last edition before the 15-stroke thrashing Tiger Woods famously put on as a 24-year-old in 2000.

The most recent edition it hosted was the 2010 U.S. Open, won by Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell by a stroke over France’s Gregory Havret, one of the most unknown major contenders in recent years.

Hole of the Week

No.7, Pebble Beach Golf Links
Par 3, 109 yards

The short par 3 seventh hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links will play to just under 110 yards for the national championship. It is one of the photographed golf holes in the world.

From an elevated tee, players hit straight out toward the Pacific Ocean, off Arrowhead Point, with nothing in the background but the often violent Pacific Ocean surf crashing against rocky outcroppings.

Marquee Pairings

  • Jon Rahm, Marc Leishman, Rory McIlroy
  • Justin Thomas, Kevin Kisner, Bryson DeChambeau
  • Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell
  • Cameron Smith, Matthew Wallace, Xander Schauffele
  • Hideki Matsuyama, Sergio Garcia, Tommy Fleetwood
  • Paul Casey, Patrick Cantlay, Lucas Glover
  • Francesco Molinari, Viktor Hovland (a), Brooks Koepka
  • Webb Simpson, Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar
  • Tony Finau, Jimmy Walker, Ian Poulter
  • Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Tiger Woods

Power Rankings

Patrick Cantlay
Patrick Cantlay plays a shot from the 12th tee during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National GC on Apr 14, 2019 in Augusta, GA. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

Power Rank-Player (World Rank, Odds)
15. Hideki Matsuyama (29, 33-1)
14. Rickie Fowler (11, 25-1)
13. Jordan Spieth (28, 20-1)
12. Tommy Fleetwood (18, 33-1)
11. Tony Finau (14, 50-1)
10. Matt Kuchar (12, 50-1)
09. Phil Mickelson (24, 50-1)
08. Matt Wallace (26, 100-1)
07. Xander Schauffele (10, 25-1)
06. Tiger Woods (5, 11-1)
05. Patrick Cantlay (8, 20-1)
04. Rory McIlroy (3, 8-1)
03. Adam Scott (17, 33-1)
02. Dustin Johnson (2, 8-1)
01. Brooks Koepka (1, 8-1)

Top Sleeper Pick
Shane Lowry
Shane Lowry hits a shot on the 10th tee during day one of the 2018 Open de France at Le Golf National in Paris, France. Credit: Getty Images/Tony Marshall

Is it really fair to consider the man ranked 32nd in the Official World Golf Rankings a “sleeper”? We’re going to allow it. First of all, there are 31 players in the field ranked higher. Also, this has just NOT been a tournament that in recent years has seen winners outside the top portion of the world rankings.

Probably because it is such a brutal event, since 2000 only two players from outside the top 40 have won: Lucas Glover in 2009, ranked 72nd coming into the week, and Michael Campbell in 2005, was 80th (and had top 15 finishes in five of seven events coming in). Sorry, Charlie Danielson (not the fiddle guy) and Kodai Ichihara, this probably will not be your week.

As for Shane Lowry, the 32-year-old Irishman got his 2019 off to an incredible start with a win at the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. He slumped a little from February to April, but he has been in tremendous for as of late, chasing a T3 with a T8 at last month’s PGA Championship, and then he tied for second at last week’s RBC Canadian Open.

Lowry’s short game has been phenomenal lately and he has consistently been avoiding bogeys, both of which are key at Pebble and at the U.S. Open. His length is a plus, and he has been hitting more greens as of late as well. He also finished runner-up in this event once (2016) and does have on his resume, a win on American soil against an elite field: the 2015 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Stat of the Week

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods putts on the 9th green during the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach, Calif. on June 18, 2000. Woods won the tournament with a US Open course record of 12-under-par. Credit: JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

468 – The number of players in the field of the past three U.S. Opens held at Pebble Beach, combined.

3 – The number of players in those three events to finish the tournament under par.

Establishing itself as a U.S. Open-worthy venue, Pebble Beach has played extremely difficult its last three times as host. Those three under-par players were Tom Kite, who won the 1992 event at 3-under, Jeff Sluman, who finished runner-up to Kite that year, and Tiger Woods, who was an outlier of outliers when he finished the 2000 U.S. Open at 12-under-par.

Tiger’s closest competitors were Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez, who finished at 3-over. 7-over par was good enough for a top-10 finish in that edition.

No players finished under-par in 2010, the last time the U.S. Open was held at Pebble. Graeme McDowell’s final-round 74 was the last over-par from a winning player at ANY major, until Brooks Koepka matched that 74 on Sunday at last month’s PGA Championship.

U.S. Open Storylines

1. The Major Question: Can Brooks Be Stopped?

Brooks Koepka Wins 2019 PGA Championship
Brooks Koepka poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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 walks from the seventh tee during the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble Beach Golf Links on February 10, 2019 in Pebble Beach, Calif. Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

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

Brooks Koepka Course Record 63 PGA Championship Bethpage Black
Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods walk from the 8th tee during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 16, 2019 in Farmingdale, NY. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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

Rory McIlroy Wins RBC Canadian Open
Rory McIlroy talks with his caddie, Harry Diamond, on the 14th hole during the final round of the RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf and Country Club on June 09, 2019 in Hamilton, Canada. Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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
Jordan Spieth lines up a putt on the third hole during the final round of The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club on June 02, 2019 in Dublin, Ohio. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson his tee shot on the 10th hole during the final round of the PGA Championship on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

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

Rickie Fowler
Rickie Fowler hits his tee shot on the 5th hole during the second round of The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club on May 31, 2019 in Dublin, Ohio. Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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.

End Quotes

“Not Fun”
Tiger Woods and Tom Weiskopf
Tiger Woods and Tom Weiskopf look on during the Champion Golfers’ Challenge ahead of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course on July 15, 2015 in St Andrews, Scotland. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

“When people say they dream of playing in the U.S. Open someday, what they’re really saying is, they’d like to be good enough to play. Trust me, the U.S. Open is not fun,” said Tom Weiskopf

An apt illustration of just how difficult the U.S. Open plays, the words of 16-time PGA Tour winner Weiskopf have been echoed by many players throughout the years. It is golf at its hardest, not at its most fun.

Weikopf, by the way, never won the U.S. Open, although he did finish inside the top-5 four consecutive years from 1976-1979.

“Easiest Ones”
Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka poses with girlfriend Jena Sims and the Wanamaker Trophy during the Trophy Presentation Ceremony after winning the final round of the PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 19, 2019 in Farmingdale, NY. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“I think sometimes the majors are the easiest ones to win. Half the people shoot themselves out of it, and mentally, I know I can beat most of them, and then from there it’s those guys left, who’s going to play good and who can win,” explained Brooks Koepka, back-to-back defending champion of the U.S. Open, who is attempting to complete the first event three-peat since Willie Anderson 114 years ago.

Credit: Fastscripts, Getty Images, OWGR, Bovada


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