PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — A U.S. Open at Pebble Beach feels different.
“The history behind it,” Brooks Koepka said. “You look at the guys that have won here at Pebble, all Hall of Famers, some of the greatest players that have ever played the game. How can you not like the views? It’s a cool place just to play golf and just to be here. It really is special.”
Koepka will be after something extremely special this week. If he wins, he would be the first player in more than a century to win three consecutive U.S. Open titles. But he’s not the only big name entering with big questions: Can Tiger Woods win his second major of the year and inch closer to Jack Nicklaus’ career total of 18? Will Phil Mickelson finally complete the career grand slam with that elusive U.S. Open win?
We go through all the major questions.
1. Which Tiger shows up: Masters Tiger or PGA Championship Tiger?
Bob Harig: Masters Tiger. That is not to say he will win, but Tiger comes to Pebble Beach far better prepared than he was at the PGA. It’s only six rounds of competitive golf since the Masters, but that has given him plenty of feedback for what to work on leading up to the U.S. Open. Getting here early and playing the course on Sunday was a good idea, too.
Michael Collins: A closer version of Masters Tiger. This course has much different demands than Augusta National has. So that Tiger shouldn’t show up here. If the Tiger Woods from the first 12 holes Sunday at The Memorial shows up (as Samuel L. Jackson said in “Jurassic Park”), then “hold on to your butts.” That guy could win here … by a landslide!
Ian O’Connor: Neither. I think 2010 Pebble Beach U.S. Open Tiger shows up. He finished T-4 here 10 years after winning by 15, and that sounds about right this time around. Tiger will have his moments, and he’ll wake up Sunday morning with a shot. But I think Koepka and DJ are better bets.
Mark Schlabach: I think Tiger will play better than he did at Bethpage Black, but I don’t think he’s going to be a legitimate contender to win at Pebble Beach this week. Sure, he won a U.S. Open here by a staggering 15 strokes, but that was 19 years ago. He has never been a big fan of poa annua greens, so putting on the bumpy surfaces might be a cause for concern this week.
Nick Pietruszkiewicz: Definitely Masters Tiger. I actually think he wins this week. Bethpage Black isn’t his type of course anymore. The timing was bad, too, with him not playing at all after ending his major drought in April. Places like Augusta National and Pebble Beach are better fits as he ages. He knows this place. He knows how to win here. He knows how to win at the U.S. Open. Bethpage was a blip.
Brooks Koepka talks with Tom Rinaldi about being the underdog and how he will always have that chip on his shoulder.
2. Brooks Koepka is after a third straight U.S. Open. Does he get it? If not, what stops him?
Harig: No, and it’s certainly not meant as a slight. It is simply the law of averages. It is hard to win tournaments, especially majors. To win four over the past two years is an amazing achievement. Nobody would be surprised if he captured the U.S. Open to become the first player in more than a century to win three straight. But actually doing it? Not this week.
Collins: He gets it. Koepka already plays major championships at a different level, but this one he plays with a bigger chip on his shoulder than others because of his perceived slights on his wins. Brooks knows what it would mean historically to win three in a row, but he is the best since Tiger Woods at compartmentalizing that kind of stuff.
O’Connor: Yes, he will join Willie Anderson — the late, great Scot, not the former San Antonio Spur, Toronto Raptor, New York Knick and Miami Heat — as the only three-peater in U.S. Open history. Koepka has won 50% of his majors over the past two years. It just makes sense to pick him until he gives me a reason not to.
Schlabach: I think Koepka is the guy to beat, and more importantly he knows he’s the guy to beat. I’m certain he’ll be extra motivated because everybody seems to be talking about Tiger, Phil, Rory McIlroy and his buddy Dustin Johnson as the favorites once again. At Erin Hills in 2017 and Shinnecock Hills last year, Koepka won with his power and distance off the tee. The setup at Pebble Beach, with tighter fairways and thicker rough, will require him to be more accurate off the tee and on second shots. Until somebody knocks him off, I’m riding with Koepka.
Pietruszkiewicz: He can win anywhere. He can win here. He can win this week. What will stop him won’t be him. What will stop him will be somebody else. In my mind, this week, it’s Tiger. But to think he can’t win on a finesse course or that weight of chasing a third straight U.S. Open title … none of that stuff bothers him. So it won’t be any of that stuff that forces him to give back that trophy for the first time in three years.
3. After trouble (again) at Shinnecock Hills a year ago and early complaints from players about Pebble Beach, will the USGA get this one right?
Harig: It must. Too much of the past five years has been filled with complaints or rules officials, justified or not. The bottom line is there has been an issue at each of the past four U.S Opens — last year’s Saturday fiasco a prime example of player angst. Look for the USGA to be extremely careful, and if anything, go too soft.
Collins: Nope. Think about this: You’re the “new guy” taking over setup duties from Mike Davis, which is happening with John Bodenhamer now in charge. Are you going to have your first U.S. Open be won with a score of 8 under and with 15 guys under par? You think the “old boys” network is going to put someone in place who won’t do what they want and stay on the “par is a great score” edict? I’ll be more surprised when they let the best golfers show off their talents, instead of making it about making sure a certain score wins.
O’Connor: I’d never been to Pebble before Tuesday morning, and it took me 15 minutes on the grounds to realize it would be awfully difficult to screw up this place. The USGA has been so traumatized by player gripes and media rip jobs in recent years that I’d bet on something of an overcorrection the other way. For a change, this championship will be about the golf, and not about the people who govern it.
Schlabach: I think USGA officials have heard the complaints from players loud and clear. The rough at Pebble Beach is thick, but it could have been even thicker. The greens are somewhat soft, although they’re expected to dry out as the week goes along. Players are praying for rain, but there isn’t any in the weather forecast. With partly cloudy skies, temperatures in the high-50s and low-60s, and winds from 9 to 11 mph expected for each of the four rounds, it’s going to be hard for the USGA to get this one wrong.
Pietruszkiewicz: Please, please, please let the answer to this be yes. The USGA can’t afford another debacle. Let the players decide who wins, not luck (or bad luck) brought on by the USGA pushing Pebble Beach to the brink simply to make sure the winner is around even par. Getting the course firm is fine. Making it impossible for the best players in the world to keep a ball on green is not fine.
4. Biggest name you’re worried about to miss the cut?
Harig: Bryson DeChambeau. His form has not been the greatest since the Masters, with a stretch of three missed cuts before he tied for 22nd at the Memorial. Perhaps that was a sign he’s coming out of his funk, but the big entourage at Pebble Beach working out all the science might be too much.
Collins: Phil Mickelson. I feel bad for Phil because he won here earlier this year. So there’s extra pressure on him, on top of trying to complete the career grand slam. It’s too much. Putting two drivers in the bag is overthinking it — again. But that’s the hint into when guys say, “I just need to get out of my own way.” I just wish Phil could do it at the U.S. Open. This week will be the hardest one for him to make the weekend.
O’Connor: DeChambeau. His newfangled math isn’t adding up lately, and this is a course built for artists, not scientists. Now watch him win the damn thing.
Schlabach: Spain’s Jon Rahm finished tied for ninth at the Masters and won the Zurich Classic with teammate Ryan Palmer. But then Rahm missed the cut at the PGA Championship and the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial, his most recent event. He doesn’t come into the U.S. Open with a lot of confidence and momentum. Rahm has been great off the tee and his iron play is as good as anyone’s, but he ranks 72nd in shots gained: approach to the green, and 110th in shots gained: around the green. Is his short game good enough to hold up at Pebble Beach?
Pietruszkiewicz: I’m with Bob and Ian on this. After watching DeChambeau with all those people around him, and two different swing devices next to him for every shot during an early week practice round, makes it hard to imagine he won’t get into his head at an event designed to get into your head. One bad hole could send the mind into a tailspin. And at a U.S. Open, it’s hard not to have at least one bad hole.
5. OK, does Phil have a chance?
Harig: Sure, but he needs to get the ball in the fairway. Phil can talk all he wants about hitting bombs, but that is not the strategy this week, and he knows it. Pebble is a different place from when he won in February and could hit driver and attack pins on a soft course. Far more strategy is involved, but Phil is certainly capable of getting it going.
Collins: No. For all the reasons I stated in the previous question. Some baggage can be helpful. Other baggage can be like wearing a cement backpack to go swimming. If the U.S. Open were the Italian mafia, Phil is the one who’ll never be a “made” man.
O’Connor: Of course he does. Phil is one of the greatest players of all time, he has won five times here, and it would be perfectly Mickelsonian for Lefty to finally complete the career Grand Slam and win the U.S. Open one year after he clowned himself and the USGA at Shinnecock.
Schlabach: If Phil keeps his big driver in the bag and remains patient, he’ll have a chance to win the U.S. Open and complete the career grand slam. He admits there’s a lot of pressure on him, both internally and externally, to finally win the U.S. Open. He knows the window is closing fast as he approaches his 49th birthday on Sunday. If he doesn’t win at Pebble Beach this week or Winged Foot next season, it’s not going to happen.
Pietruszkiewicz: Well, wouldn’t that be fun. Imagine if two of the names high on the leaderboard come Sunday night are Mickelson and Woods. Yes, he has a chance. I say he finishes somewhere between 15-25. He’s in the mix, in the conversation, but not the winner.