Analysis: Koepka the man to beat U.S. Open at Pebble Beach
A step-by-step guide to winning the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Pebble Beach:
Step No. 1: Don’t hit it into the rough.
Step No. 2: There is no Step No. 2. Just follow Step No. 1.
That might be overly simplistic, but staying on the fairway will go a long way at Pebble Beach, which features some of the smallest greens on tour and has been subject to the usual USGA manipulations ahead of the U.S. Open. The last time the famed seaside course hosted the tournament, in 2010, winner Graeme McDowell hit only 58% of the greens.
This will be the sixth U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and the winning scores have ranged from 2-over-par (Jack Nicklaus, 1972) and even (McDowell) to Tiger Woods’ absurd 12-under in 2000, a 15-stroke victory that seems unlikely to be matched. Much will depend on the weather, and the early forecast looks to be fairly benign, with sunny skies and winds reaching only about 10 mph.
Considering the PGA Tour’s annual February stop at Pebble Beach, one would think course history would be easy to track here. But the Pro-Am is split among three courses, and the golfers play only two rounds, at most, at Pebble Beach. So we’ll take that aspect of prognostication with a few grains of salt and also rely upon some possibly predictive statistics for Pebble Beach, where big hitters won’t necessarily have an edge at the shortest U.S. Open course since Merion in 2013.
A look at a few golfers who could make noise this weekend:
Brooks Koepka: He has won four of the past eight majors and the previous two U.S. Opens. Only three other players — Willie Anderson (1903-05), Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89) — have won consecutive U.S. Opens, with Hogan finishing third in 1952 in his attempt for a third and Strange finishing T-21 in 1990. Koepka doesn’t have a whole lot of history at Pebble Beach, but he didn’t have any history at Bethpage Black, either, and look what happened at the PGA Championship.
Dustin Johnson: Johnson held a three-stroke lead entering the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach but imploded Sunday with a triple bogey at No. 2 and a double at No. 3. He has won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice and three other times finished in the top five. If there’s a course on which Johnson could win his second major, this might be the best candidate.
Tiger Woods: Woods followed his missed cut at the PGA Championship with a respectable T-9 at the Memorial, one of his four top-10s this season. He also finished T-4 the last time Pebble Beach hosted the U.S. Open and had that win for the ages in 2000, when he was the only player to finish under par.
Rory McIlroy: People were jumping off the McIlroy train after his missed cut at the Memorial, but then he ran away from the field at last weekend’s Canadian Open, shooting a final-round 61 to win by seven strokes. The Memorial flameout clearly was just a blip because McIlroy might be having his best season. Could his first major win since 2014 be next? There’s just one caveat: A player has won the week before a major and then won the major only 12 times in 85 years. But there’s also a caveat to the caveat! McIlroy is the most recent player to do it, winning the WGC-Bridgestone the week before his 2014 PGA Championship victory.
Patrick Cantlay: Here are Cantlay’s past five results: T-9 (Masters), T-3, MC, T-3 (PGA Championship) and 1, a two-stroke win at the Memorial. Only McIlroy has more top-10s this season than Cantlay’s eight. The 27-year-old seems poised for a breakthrough.
Matt Kuchar: A missed cut at Shinnecock Hills last year ended a run of eight straight U.S. Open weekends for Kuchar, a stretch that started with a T-6 at Pebble Beach in 2010. Kuchar, who ranks third in greens in regulation, also was T-12 at the Masters and T-8 at the PGA Championship.
Brandt Snedeker: Snedeker has only three top-10s this season but is rounding into form with top-20 finishes in his past three tournaments, including a T-4 at the Canadian Open that included a second-round 60. And while getting to the green has been something of an adventure for him — Snedeker ranks 168th in greens in regulation — he has been strong once he reaches the pin area (T-8 in strokes gained: putting). He also has won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice (although he missed the cut this year). Snedeker also has five top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open, including a T-8 at Pebble Beach in 2010.
Gary Woodland: If Woodland can get his putting in order, he could be poised to make a run. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained: ball striking, sits 10th in strokes gained: tee to green and ranks 11th in greens in regulation. The form also is there, with seven top-10 finishes this season and top-10s in two of the past three majors (both of them the PGA Championship).
What about Phil?
A U.S. Open win after years of torment would be quite the story for Mickelson, especially considering Sunday’s final round falls on his 49th birthday. He certainly is fond of the course, winning the Pro-Am five times (including this year) and notching T-16 and T-4 at the U.S. Opens he played there. But Mickelson’s woeful driving accuracy remains a big issue: He ranks 208th in that statistic, with only one player worse.