The 119th US Open at Pebble Beach has the makings of a classic as the bug guns of golf take the field this weekend at Pebble Beach. Off the back of Books Koepkas recent win at the PGA Championships, will he make it a 3-peat? Will Tiger give us a better showing then what he at the last major and bring back his Masters form? will Rory continue his form after blitzing the field last week in Canada? or will a dark horse come through the field to surprise us all?
Tiger Woods has seen triumph at Pebble Beach before and returns to take on a generation of golfers who grew up wanting to be him including Koepka. Only one man in history has won three straight US Open Championship when Will Anderson accomplished it over 100 years ago.
One thing we know, is it's going to be tough. Accuracy off the tee is critical as the course has been set up with narrow fairways and high punishing roughs to make it difficult for anyone that doesn't hit the short grass.
Par 5s are normally seen as prime scoring opportunities for professional golfers, but Pebble Beach is a different challenge.The 14th Hole, a Par 5 580 yard hold has been the toughest hole in US Open golf in the last 50 years playing to a 5.38 scoring average. In 2010, only 32% of shots hit the green in Regulation when a player missed the fairway. Best of all, anything can happen on the last hole of the course, another Par 5 awaits players as they tee up on the 18th. Previously, US Open Champions have stamped their mark on the final 6 holes of the course gaining a majority of shots through this stretch.
The questions are different now, if only because Tiger Woods no longer has to explain why he was stuck for more than a decade on 14 major championship wins.
That alone had to be worth the smile on his face Tuesday as he took a break from a session on the driving range at Pebble Beach to assess his chances of adding the U.S. Open title to the Masters green jacket he won just two months ago.
With age comes a certain wisdom, too, and perhaps an understanding that as historic as Woods’ Masters win was, there are a lot more wins in his past than there will be in his future.
And, realistically, there will never be a win again like his romp here in 2000, when Woods never missed a putt inside 10 feet and won the Open by a whopping 15 shots.
Woods is 44 now, balding and with the usual aches and pains that go along with age and the wear and tear of swinging a golf club. That he’s still capable of competing at the highest level after back and knee surgeries borders on amazing even in a sport that treats its ageing stars better than any other. Still, the fact he’s one of the favourites in this U.S. Open on the same seaside course where he won so easily 19 years ago has Woods a bit bemused, if not really that surprised.
“How do you compete against kids that were born in the 2000s?” Woods asked. “They were born after I won this damn tournament.”
The answer to that question, of course, is hit the ball straight and make a bunch of putts. It’s basically the formula Woods followed in the 2000 win that was the first of a remarkable four major championships in a row.
And his worries about playing against kids born after his 2000 win might be just a bit overstated. In the field of 156 players, only Michael Thorbjornsen had’t been born at that time, and the 17-year-old amateur from Wellesley, Massachusetts, isn’t exactly a betting favourite in his first Open.
But as Woods tees off Thursday in search of another major, he’s as firmly rooted in the past as he is engaged in the present. And that’s not a bad thing on a golf course he played as a child with his dad long before he hoisted an Open trophy in a performance for the ages.
Woods said he was 9 or 10 when he first played Pebble Beach, where he said the green fees were under $100. He knows that because his dad, Earl Woods, vowed to him that they would never play any golf course if it cost more than that.
“It was a long, soft, wet golf course to me,” Woods said. “But it was cool to see that the same thing we watch every year in, what, February, (to) see where the pros play.”
Pebble Beach won’t be soft and wet for this Open.
That’s not the way the USGA sets up the national championship, and the forecast says it’s not going to rain this week.
Woods spent time on the putting green Monday and the driving range Tuesday, part of a strategy to conserve his energy and not play the course until it is close to tournament conditions.
So far, though, he likes what he sees.
“There’s nothing like playing a U.S. Open setup here at Pebble Beach,” Woods said. “The golf course is not overly long. It’s not big in that regard, but man, it’s tricky. The greens are all slanted, very small targets. And if they ever firm up, then we have a totally different ballgame.”
There’s a lot to like about Woods’ chances in those conditions, in any conditions. This is a player, you might remember, who finished tied for fourth in the last Open here in 2010, when he was just months removed — and still trying to recover — from a humiliating fall from grace in a marital scandal that shocked the sports world.
He’s been through even more since then, including surgeries and a DUI arrest when he was found parked on a Florida road with five different drugs in his system.
But life seems about as good as it gets these days for Woods. He’s back playing well, has a steady girlfriend, and can’t stop talking about how much his Masters win meant to him because it allowed his two children to see him at the top of his game.
His embrace of them on the 18th green at Augusta National was poignant, bringing back memories of the long hug he gave his own father off the same green in 1997 when he won his first major championship in a runaway.
“They don’t remember me enjoying the game of golf because all they remember is Daddy on the ground in pain,” Woods said.
“And so now golf brings me so much joy, they’re able to see that. And if it brings a smile to their faces, it brings a smile to my own.”
And right now, Woods has a lot to smile about.
“Don’t about worry breaking them after the way I've been hitting them.” Rory McIIroy said as he departed the Memorial tournament two weeks ago after missing the cut. That missed cut however, gave him time to get dialed in.
The result was a resounding seven-stroke victory on Sunday at the RBC Canadian Open, where he ripped up Hamilton Golf & Country Club with a 22-under-par 258, a tournament record. On the weekend he shot 64-61, 15 under par. The 61 equaled his career low on the PGA Tour.
“I felt really comfortable with everything for the last few weeks. Some of it’s sort of minor swing changes that I’ve been trying to make. Not changes, but just little tweaks,” McIlroy explained on Wednesday. “I felt like they started to bed in over the weekend at Memorial that I missed the cut. And I even said before the tournament last week I felt like that missed cut at the Memorial was a blessing in disguise. It let me work on my game a little more.
“Those two rounds [at Memorial] highlighted a couple of things that I still needed to work on. And I think just from seeing good shots and making good swings on the range, to then seeing good shots, making good swings on the golf course, then you can start to play with a little bit of freedom and fire.”
The 2011 U.S. Open winner, McIlroy said he hadn’t felt that good about his game since the 2016 FedExCup Playoffs. He won consecutive events that year and that spurt allowed him to walk off with the season-long title.
With two victories this year, increasing to 16 his number of PGA Tour titles, and 10 top-10 finishes in 13 starts, the Ulsterman already was looked upon as one of the favorites for the 119th U.S. Open that starts Thursday at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
Now he’s playing with freedom. And fire.
“Obviously, it's a nice little confidence boost coming into this tournament,” said McIlroy, whose won the last of his four major titles at the 2014 PGA Championship. “I feel like my game has been in pretty good shape all year, and it was nice to validate the good work that I've been putting in with another win.
“And I feel like the golf that I played last week is what I’m capable of and the golf that I’ll obviously try to produce more often. You’re obviously not going to go out and shoot those scores every weekend, but it’s nice when it happens. It was a nice way to come into this tournament.”
In Canada he also used the word freedom in describing the current state of his golf game.
“Yeah, I think when you're playing up there in the final rounds of tournaments and you're up around the lead, it's easier said than done to play with freedom. And I think that how I played last weekend up around the lead. I know what I'm capable of, and it's just about trying to get that out of myself just a little more often. But it's obviously very hard to play with that amount of freedom if you're not confident in your golf swing and you're not confident in what you're doing with your game.”
McIlroy tends to win in spurts. That 2014 PGA Championship victory came in the midst of three wins in a row that included The Open Championship, with the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title sandwiched in between.
But before he won The Players Championship in March, McIlroy had won only once since 2016, at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. The slight pause in success flummoxed the 30-year-old from Northern Ireland, who decided that in 2019 he would play mostly in the U.S. to have a better chance to win majors and gain more consistency.
He definitely has been more consistent, and now he seems to be warming up for another big win.
But since his record-setting victory at Congressional Country Club, where he shot 16-under 268 and won by eight strokes, McIlroy has missed more cuts (four) than he has made (three) in the U.S. Open. He hasn’t played on the weekend in the championship since 2015 at Chambers Bay.
In each of the last three years he has gotten off to a terrible start with rounds of 77, 78 and 80.
“I had a chat with Johnny Miller [at Tuesday’s Reunion of Champions], and Johnny said, ‘You look at the history of major championships, that first round is so important.’ I said, ‘I know.’ My first rounds at Augusta and Bethpage this year just sort of put me a little bit behind the eight ball,” said McIlroy, who shot over par to start the Masters and PGA, respectively. “And it's hard to catch up. Especially, you know, major championships are played on the toughest courses, and you start to chase on those really tough courses, it's hard to do that.
“I think getting back to winning, the majors that I’ve won, I’ve started every single one of them really well, runs in sort of the mid-60s, and I think that’s sort of what’s held me back a little bit. If I can take that freedom that I played with on Saturday and Sunday last week and put that into tomorrow and play with that sort of freedom and get off to a good start, I’ll be right – hopefully right in the tournament from the get-go and stay there.”
If Rory plays the way he did in Canada, we still believe he is arguably the best current golfer in the world. No doubt Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods and a host of other players will have something to say about that.
Our sleeper in the field is Web Simpson who can play straight and quietly step around the course and for an Aussie hopeful, Jason Day goes into the week with Steve Williams on his bag, could he helps him create memories of magic as he did with Tiger?
We'll found out soon as tee off starts tonight AEST.