Reinvigorated Rory McIlroy favourite to win at Pebble Beach after spectacular Sunday finish, as Brooks Koepka tries to make it three in a row. But course’s lack of length gives shorter hitters a chance, as Graeme McDowell showed in 2009.
The stage is set for an iconic US Open Golf this week as the tournament returns to Pebble Beach Golf Links for the first time in nearly a decade. In the revamped PGA Tour schedule the historically hardest of the four majors will play as the third of the season after Tiger Woods took home his fifth green jacket at the Masters in April and Brooks Koepka lifted the Wanamaker Trophy at last month’s PGA Championship.
At 7.055 yards, par 71, Pebble Beach is not one of the longer courses on the US Open 2019 roster. It is 400 yards shorter than Shinnecock Hills, where the tournament was hosted last year – and that is a par 70. And 700 yards shorter than the 2017 venue, Erin Hills, albeit a par 72. This means that Pebble will be a different challenge. The course is not a bomber’s paradise. Players may pick the driver on only a handful or even fewer holes. There will also be a lot of short-iron and wedge approaches, rather than the typical US Open 4-iron second shots.
No Huge Advantage for the Big Guns at Pebble Beach Golf Course
The limited length of the course will open up opportunities for shorter hitters. As Paul McGinley writes in The Sunday Times, Pebble Beach like
Augusta National is a “second shot” course, placing a premium on accuracy from the tee and distance control on approach shots. As McGinley is also pointing out, most of the greens are quite smallish and sloping from back to front. It will be vital to keep the ball on the low side of the cup for uphill birdie putts. And given that the rough is expected to be nasty, downhill chips must be avoided at all costs.
Graeme McDowell’s victory in the last US Open to be held at Pebble, in 2009, is proof that the course does not necessarily favour big hitters like Dustin Johnson or Brooks Koepka. Likewise, the relatively short-hitting Tom Kite’s victory in the 1992 tournament.
No Strong Winds Expected, But Rough Will be Nasty
The weather at the Monterey Peninsula in California can be notoriously volatile and strong winds are not uncommon on this scenic Pacific Ocean-facing course. So far however the weather forecast for the week is generally cloudy, but winds are not expected to be stronger than a gentle breeze throughout the weekend.
As always with the US Open a big question mark is left over how brutal the USGA greenkeepers will set up the course. Fairways are expected to be narrow, greens fast and the rough deep – as they should. But the risk is that the USGA will yet again err on the side of brutality, making the week more akin to a scythe cutting competition rather than a golf tournament. Phil Mickelson is only one of the high-profile players who have been vocal in his criticism of the USGA in the lead-up to the tournament – probably at least partly motivated by anguish over his so-far failure to bag a US Open and thereby complete his career Grand Slam.
If He Plays Like Vader Woods Can Win
In his sensational 15 shot victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach course, Tiger Woods was the big gun, hitting it miles beyond the rest of the field. But that is almost 20 years ago. The times have changed, and the 2019 version of Tiger is a totally different animal.
At 43 years Tiger has belatedly recognised that he cannot keep up with the likes of DJ, Koepka and Rory McIlroy in the driving distance statistics. And he plays all the much better for it. As Jack Nicklaus observed at the Memorial Tournament, Tiger’s swing looks more relaxed than it has in a long time and he seems to be enjoying himself much more on the course. The acknowledgement of no longer being one of the longest hitters on the tour also means that Tiger isn’t throwing himself so uncontrollably at the ball anymore as he had a habit of doing. The improved rhythm has improved his accuracy and means that even his wayward drives are less wayward than they used to be.
To invoke a somewhat banal Star Wars analogy: Whereas the Tiger of old fought like the youthful Anakin Skywalker in the Duel on Mustafar against Obi-Wan Kenobi,
full of vigour and initiative but lacking in restraint, the re-constructed Tiger plays more like the mature and mechanical Darth Vader in the Death Star duel versus Obi-Wan. Like Vader, Woods has had extensive surgery limiting his mobility and forcing him to swing his stick in a no-nonsense, deadly efficient manner. (Woods’ evolution in that sense echoes that of Cristiano Ronaldo, who at 34 may lack the fancy dribbling artistry of his 20-year-old self but is perhaps an even more coolly efficient scoring machine than he has ever been). As the saying goes: “Old age and treachery will always beat youth and exuberance.”
Tiger Carries Momentum from Memorial Tournament
It was exactly in this clinical and patient fashion Woods won the Masters. And it is how he has a chance at the US Open. Speaking of Star Wars, in an interview with the PGA Tour Jesper Parnevik, who played with Woods the first two rounds of the 2000 Open, reminisces how Tiger seemingly: “had some Jedi powers; he could pretty much will the ball in the hole.” In that week Woods did not miss a single putt inside 8 feet.
Woods has only played one tournament since he disappointingly missed the cut at the PGA at Bethpage, looking rusty not having played since his Masters win. He had an altogether unspectacular performance at Jack’s place, but a solid Sunday 5-under 67 still meant that he finished in the Top 10 and enters US Open week with some momentum. But to have a chance at Pebble Tiger cannot afford many (or any) of the unnecessary double bogeys he had two of at Muirfield Village – including one at a par 5 where he had hit pin-high in two, only to mess it up completely with his lob wedge. Especially as the rough at Pebble Beach will be even more unforgiving.
12/1 to win is not bad odds for a resurgent Tiger on a course he knows and likes. Given his string of solid performances, counting the missed cut at the PGA as an aberration, perhaps an even better play is Tiger to finish in the Top 5, offered at a decent 10/3.
McIlroy the Man to Beat After Putting Problems Laid to Rest
Rory McIlroy went straight from missing the cut at Nicklaus’ tournament to winning the RBC Canadian Open last week. His first victory since the
Players Championship in March means the moody Ulsterman will arrive in California with his bag full of confidence. When his putting problems are laid to rest nobody can beat McIlroy. All too often when McIlroy has been in contention his putting has failed him. And when a golfer putts badly it inevitably contaminates the rest of his game too, putting a lot of pressure to hit chips close, irons on the green and drives in the fairway. McIlroy has handled this pressure worse than the true greats of the game like Woods or Nicklaus. Instead, his putting frustration has led him to dark places. The bit when he gets on with his short stick it also frees up the rest of his game, enabling him to freely attack the pins with his irons and lets him relax and loosen up from the tee. If he can manage to stay in the zone with his putter McIlroy will certainly be a contender at Pebble, as he will relish the chance to shine at such a glamorous venue. Together with Dustin Johnson he is now the bookmakers’ favourite at 8/1 to win.
Jordan Spieth is Back in Shape and has Won at Pebble Beach course Before
Another resurgent player who may fancy his chances is Jordan Spieth. The former world number one is down to 28th in the official world golf ranking. But a tie for 3rd at the PGA followed by a t8th and t7th at Colonial and the Memorial respectively has certainly helped his confidence. Although, he may be a bit disappointed he did not manage better at the Memorial, where he had a chance to rally but finished with an uninspired +1 73 on Sunday. Spieth has won on Pebble Beach before, at the 2017 AT&T, and as he is not among the biggest hitters it is a course that suits him. Bet365 offers 22/1 for a Spieth win.
Stealthy Cantlay a Force to Be Reckoned With
Patrick Cantlay has almost stealthily climbed to 8th in the world rankings. After a tie for third at the PGA Championship and victory at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, thanks to a finishing 8-under 64, he is certainly one to watch at the US Open. With his lack of flashiness, Cantlay draws less attention than other players but that does not mean he should be forgotten. Of his 13 starts this season he has finished in the Top 10 in eight of them. Apart from three missed cuts, his worst finishes are a 15th and a 17th. The odds for a Cantlay victory are 18/1. Odds of 4/1 for Cantlay to finish in the Top 5 may be one of the more attractive bets of the week.
Koepka Cannot Be Counted Out
Brooks Koepka will have a shot at making history as he tries to be the first person to win three US Opens in a row since Willie Anderson successful run from 1903 – 1905. However, the odds for a Koepka victory have lengthened after his nondescript tie for 50th at the RBC Canadian Open. One should not read too much into that though. It may only confirm Koepka’s reputation as a player for major occasions. After all, only two of his six PGA Tour victories are non-majors. Considering he has won four of the last nine majors, odds of 9/1 for a Koepka victory may not be a bad bet. The only thing arguing against Koepka making it three in a row is the fact that his long and accurate drives will not be rewarded to the same degree at Pebble as at Shinnecock last year and at Erin Hills the year before.
The game of professional golf is in a good place at the moment with fierce competition between old and new stars. So, whatever happens, the US Open should be another exciting tournament. Perhaps even Phil Mickelson finally will complete his career Grand Slam. After all he won the AT&T at Pebble earlier this year. The odds for that happening are 55/1 at Bet365 – which would be a memorable win.