Two down, two to go.
Traditionally the second golf major of the year, the US Open is now this season’s third as a result of the PGA Championship being rescheduled to the middle of May. Pebble Beach, California, hosts the tournament for the sixth time; Graeme McDowell was the last winner there in 2010, with Tiger Woods winning the edition before that in 2000 – that 15 shot success remains the largest margin of victory ever in a major championship.
It’s historically been the toughest major in terms of scoring. The United States Golf Association, who organise the tournament, have thrived on that reputation as they rotate the tournament around the country. When Geoff Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera won in 2006 & 2007 respectively, they done so by posting five over after 72 holes. Last year, Brooks Koepka defended his title with a score of one over. That said, it should be remembered that Koepka’s victory at Erin Hills in 2017 saw him at sixteen under, the same score Rory McIlroy managed when he won the title in 2011.
So, let’s put generalisations to one side and see what Pebble Beach might offer up. In terms of distance, it’s relatively short, at 7,075 yards, but it’s not a course that the big hitters can smash their way around. Instead, it’s a strategic course. Phil Mickelson, who has won the annual Pro-Am at Pebble Beach five times, has said ‘The greens are so small and so hard that there are a couple that are virtually impossible to keep the ball on the surface.’
High winds are another factor. As Jack Nicklaus once remarked, ‘Pebble Beach without any wind is not a very hard golf course. But you never find it without any wind.’
There are just three par fives at holes 6, 14 & 18 and the two on the back nine are particularly difficult. The 14th is, statistically, one of the hardest par fives on the PGA tour. The last hole is considered to be one of the best finishes in golf; a classic risk and reward scenario where you can try to make the green in two if you keep the ball left and hug the famous Stillwater Cove. If it’s tight in the final round, expect plenty of nervy tee shots there.
There are two Kiwis to cheer on, but not the two you’d expect. Yes, Ryan Fox is there, but Danny Lee, needing a victory to qualify at the last moment, could only manage a tie for 20th at last weeks Canadian Open. Instead, amateur Daniel Hillier joins Fox having made the starting line up via section qualifying in England two weeks ago, the same qualification route a certain Michael Campbell took back in 2005….
Fox qualified the same weekend via section qualifying in Brookside, Ohio, where Lee fell two shots short. Fox has slipped back to 89th in the World and has missed his last four cuts, so he’ll need to rediscover his early season form quickly if he’s going to play the weekend.
Back to Hillier though and it’s interesting to note he finished 17th at the US Amateur Championships last August – at Pebble Beach. That tournament was a mixture of strokeplay for the first 36 holes (after which Hillier was the joint leader) before switching to a matchplay format for the top 64. He will take confidence from those first two rounds in particular. Making the cut would be a fantastic achievement.
Rory McIlroy playing the week before a major is unusual, but he made it pay last week at the Canadian Open, hitting a 61 in the final round to win by seven. He has to have a chance this week, but all too often Rory has promised much coming into a major week, only to disappoint.
I’m not quite sure what version of Tiger Woods will turn up this week. After the emotional high of Augusta, he missed the cut at the PGA. He finished tied for 9th at the Memorial two weeks ago and that record breaking win in 2000 will provide a useful memory to draw on, despite being so long ago.
Brooks Koepka, will, quite simply, be Brooks Koepka. Consistency and moments of understated quality will likely see him in contention. Equally Dustin Johnson has class and recent history in this major that should see him high up the leaderboard; he held the third round lead here in 2010 before a disastrous 82 saw him finish 8th.
World No 16 Jason Day has turned some heads by bringing in Steve Williams on the bag this week; he missed the cut at the Memorial but did finish tied for fifth at The Masters, so it’ll be interesting to see if Williams can help provide an additional spark.
Outside of the favourites, I’m going to back a couple of old timers in Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk. Mickelson has a great record at Pebble Beach, albeit in the less challenging Pro-Am, and I’m backing Furyk’s quality off the tee to see him make the top 10 – he has the leading driving accuracy on the PGA tour this year and the fact he is 205th in driving distance won’t matter too much. A shock result? I’m not sure, but hopefully there’s enough variety to keep us guessing as we reach the back nine in the final round.
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