PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — It wasn’t a “typical” U.S. Open. There wasn’t carnage. The bogeys didn’t vastly outnumber the birdies. And the winner wasn’t a household name (until now).
It was, however, a deliciously entertaining major championship that produced fantastic storylines, genuine Sunday drama and a worthy champion. Here are 18 parting thoughts from the 2019 U.S. Open.
1. As always, we begin with the winner. Gary Woodland faced down the best player in the world, on one of the game’s most iconic courses, with U.S. Open pressure, and he simply refused to blink. Not when Brooks Koepka started 3-4-3-3-2 to let Woodland know that he meant business. Not when his swing completely lost its rhythm in the middle of his final round. And not when he faced an impossibly risky shot on the penultimate hole of a major championship. U.S. Opens are golf’s ultimate gut check—yes, even this gentler U.S. Open—and Woodland was asked so very many questions on Sunday. He answered all of them with admirable aplomb.
There have now been three different major winners in 2019: Woodland, Koepka and Tiger Woods. Each of these men are built like linebackers. Of course, not every elite player in the world looks like he could have played a host of different sports professionally, but that these players are having so much success speaks to how physical the game has become. Woodland’s strength was absolutely an asset throughout the week—like Koepka, his forearm girth allows him to keep the clubhead square when cutting through dense rough, to name one example. More and more of these behemoths are going to keep sprouting up, methinks.
2. Woodland produced two shots that will live in U.S. Open lore: the 3-wood on 14 and the chip on 17. The 3-wood was awesome in the true definition of the word: worthy of awe. It was just a hugely impressive display of clubhead speed, to be able to fly the ball to the middle of the green from 263 yards…and that shot is way more uphill than it looks on TV. But, for my money, the chip on 17 was more impressive.
He was sitting on a two-shot lead on 17 tee, and Koepka had just striped his tee shot down the middle on 18. If you’re Woodland there, you have to think Koepka is going to make birdie at worst. Possibly eagle. Then he flares his tee shot badly, leaves it in a terrible spot, and faces a decision. The low-risk option would be to putt it, but he knew he physically couldn’t putt it closer than 12-ish feet. The high-risk option was to sack up, pull his 64-degree wedge and trust all the work he’s put in with coach Pete Cowen to improve his short game. The ball was sitting on such tight grass that he easily could have chunked or skulled it. Instead, he nipped it perfectly, hit a spinny pitch that landed on a downslope, pumped the breaks then trickled out to tap-in range. A shot for the ages, and a shot you absolutely, positively should never try at home.
3. Brooks Koepka showed me a ton this week. Of course, he’s shown everyone a ton over the past two years, but I came into this tournament wondering how he’d fare on a course that would neutralize length. His biggest strength is his combination of length and accuracy—seems like a good strength to have in golf, doesn’t it?—and consider the courses he’s won his four majors on. Erin Hills was a wide–open field. Shinnecock was really wide, as well. Bellerive was a bomber fest, as PGAs tend to be. And Bethpage was so long and so narrow, a perfect fit for his style. Pebble would take driver out of his hands and test the rest of his game.
He passed that test with flying colors, beating 155 players in a 156-man field. His finishes in the last four majors: 2-WIN-T2-WIN. Think about that for a second. I cannot wait to see how he performs next month at Portrush, another track that will force him to play a different style. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he plays quite well over there, too.
4.This has been discussed at length, but the difference between Major Brooks Koepka and Non-Major Brooks Koepka continues to confound. He has won four major championships and just two regular PGA Tour events (though it should be noted that he has finished second seven times in non-majors). His last four finishes in majors, as noted above, are 2-WIN-T2-WIN. His last four finishes in non-majors are T50-4-T56-T56. He has an unbelievable ability to flip the switch for the four biggest events of the year. You just have to wonder: is the disparity really due to what he claims—that majors weed out the lesser players—or is it an effort thing? Or perhaps a bit of a coincidence? Or perhaps some combination of all three?
5. Tiger’s week was meh. The most interesting part of it might have been his comments after his round on Saturday. He was moving gingerly and had athletic tape on his neck, so the questions naturally focused on his body. His responses were eye-opening.
“When it's cold like this everything is achy. It's just part of the deal.”
“It's been like that for years. The forces have to go somewhere. And if they're not in the lower back, they're in the neck, and if not, they're in the mid-back and if not they go to the knee.”
“My back impacts every shot I play. It's just part of the deal.”
“Let me put it this way: I feel every shot I hit. I think that's always going to be the case from here going forward.”
If you take the man for his word, it seems he only really has a shot to contend when the weather is warm enough to loosen up his body. Clearly, he’d rather sweat through a dozen shirts throughout the week than have to bust out the sweater-vests (like he did at Pebble).
6. In more positive Tiger news… it’s amazing how much the man grinds when he seemingly has no reason to grind. Take Sunday’s round, for example. He bogeys four of his first six holes and is four–over for the tournament. He’s about to leave the easy part of the golf course and enter the teeth of it. He has absolutely no chance to even get close to contending for the title. He doesn’t need the money. He could have packed it in or withdrawn or done any number of things.
Instead, he grit his teeth and just kept on keeping on. A beautiful wedge into the 7th hole. An absolutely majestic iron shot into the 8th green—seriously, one of the most beautifully struck irons I’ve ever seen in person—to five feet. He added birdies on 13, 14, 16 and 18 to shoot one of the most unlikely 69s you’ll ever see. He is one helluva competitor, and he clearly gains satisfaction from knowing he gave every inch of himself to the round. That sounds cliché, and it is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the truth.
7. A word on the amateurs’ performance this week. Viktor Hovland was phenomenal this week, leading the field in strokes gained off the tee (it wasn’t close) and finishing in a tie for 12th. His four-day total of 280 is the lowest any amateur has ever shot in a U.S. Open—beating Jack Nicklaus. No one could have expected him to play this well, but he did come in with quite the pedigree: reigning U.S. Amateur champ, Ben Hogan award winner and world No. 1 amateur. He will turn professional tomorrow and make his pro debut at next week’s Travelers Championship.
And then there was Brandon Wu, who capped off one of the best three-week spans imaginable. On May 29, he helped Stanford win the NCAA championships. On June 3, he qualified for the U.S. Open at a Columbus sectional filled with PGA Tour pros. On June 7-9, he represented the U.S. at the Palmer Cup. Then this week, he finished T35 at the U.S. Open and played with (and tied) Dustin Johnson on Sunday.
Hovland had to stay amateur in order to play this week, as his exemption from winning the U.S. Amateur was contingent upon him not turning pro before this week. Wu, on the other hand, could have turned pro before the tournament since he qualified via sectionals. He chose not to because he wants to play in the Walker Cup and forfeits the $55,000 or so he would have won this week. After his round, he said “professional golf will always be there,” which is a nice attitude to have…but man, how much is the Walker Cup worth to you?
8. Sticking with the amateurs, how about Michael Thorbjornsen? The 17-year-old got into this event by winning the U.S. Junior Am last summer—I was shocked to learn that the winner of the U.S. Junior gets into the U.S. Open—then shot 71-73 to make the cut. He was the youngest amateur to make the weekend since World War II, and while the weekend definitely didn’t go as planned (84-76), it's still a remarkable achievement.
9. That we’ve waited this long to discuss the golf course during a U.S. Open week is kind of amazing. But here we are. The golf course takes started flowing at roughly 9 a.m. Thursday morning. That’s just over two hours into the event. More than 90% of the holes had yet to be played. There is this obsesession with having an opinion on every single major championship venue. I’m as nerdy about golf architecture as anyone, but the constant riffing on the courses—It’s too hard! It’s too easy! It’s too firm! It’s too soft!—is beyond tiring. Take a chill pill. Sit back and enjoy watching the best players in the world.
10. If we want to really dive into the weeds—and you’re reading this column, so clearly you’re willing to dive into the weeds—the golf course takes stem from an obsession with par. Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg explained perfectly why being fixated on an arbitrary measuring stick is foolish, so definitely give that a read.
Humor me with a thought experiment: throw par out the window. Imagine we kept score just by raw number—280, 285, that sort of thing—and not with par. We would judge courses’ quality as a true test not by its relation to par but by the shots it calls for, the strategy it requires and its ability to identify the best players on any given week. Pebble Beach did all of that, 13–under be damned. Good shots were rewarded and bad ones were punished. This, from Rory McIlroy, shows exactly why Pebble was so fantastic:
It made players think. It made players plan ahead. And it made them execute. That’s really all we can ask of a golf course.
11. It’s a semi-miracle that Justin Rose was in contention to win this tournament for so long. That’s how poorly he struck the ball all week. For the first two days, he hit 12 of 28 fairways and 19 of 36 greens and he was seven–under par. That is some short game wizadry, and he deserves a ton of credit for finding a way to stay close to the lead without his A game. But it also speaks to a concerning dip in Rose’s ball striking from 2018, when he was maybe the most consistent tee-to-green player in the world.
Last season, he ranked No. 16 in strokes gained off the tee and No. 17 in strokes gained approaching the green; this season, he ranks No. 24 and No. 26 in those stats. That’s not a big drop-off at all, but I’d implore you to look at one of those old-school statistics that is wrongly viewed by some as obsolete: greens in regulation. Rose was No. 23 in greens last season. He’s currently No. 144. I know, I know, greens in regulation don’t reward you for hitting them close. But it’s still a good measure of how in control of your ball you are. Namely, if your misses aren’t so bad that they miss the green and if you’re missing on the correct side. In the end, Rose’s inability to hit greens is what did him in at Pebble, and it’s not a new phenomenon at all.
Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but Rose’s switch from Taylormade to Japanese manufacturer Honma at the beginning of 2019 cannot be ignored. He was the No. 1 player in the world and got there via ruthlessly consistent ball striking, and he switched his entire bag. He was compensated more than handsomely for doing so, and surely his Honma clubs are designed to be as close as possible to his old Taylormade sticks, but you can sense what I’m getting at.
12. Speaking of Rose…he hit a cold, hard shank from the bunker Saturday at No. 5. Four holes later, Woodland did the exact same thing on 12. We love to talk about the never-ending list of reasons why the pros are so much better than us, but one that gets forgotten is how well they bounce back from shockingly horrible shots. Rose limited the damage and made bogey after his shank, then made two solid pars and a birdie on his next three holes. Woodland followed up his shank by holing a chip for par. On Friday at the Masters, Jon Rahm hit a certified hozzle rocket form the middle of the 8th fairway…and parred the hole.
A shank can derail a weekend warrior for an entire round, if not an entire month. These guys flush it away, completely unphased. It’s amazing.
13. If Brooks Koepka is the ultimate made-for-majors player, Xander Schauffele is the store–brand version. The 25-year-old has played in 10 major championships and finished sixth or better in five of them. He’s quiet and he hasn't won one of the big ones yet, so he doesn’t get the same press as fellow ‘93ers like Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau, but he’s every bit as good as they are. There are multiple majors in his future. He’s also a sneaky good quote—here’s what he had to say about Koepka’s major performances: “He’s like a cockroach. He just won’t go away.” Delightful.
14. On the other side of the major vs. non–major coin is Rory McIlroy, who put himself in semi-contention after three rounds and then promptly took himself out of conention with a double bogey on the second hole Sunday. What a difference from the Sunday prior, when he fired an electric 61 to win the Canadian Open by seven. McIlroy still finished in the top 10 this week, so he now has 11 top 10s in 14 starts this year, which is phenomenal. But he hasn’t had a realistic chance to win any of the three big ones and is at risk of going major-less for the fifth straight year. After the 2014 PGA, I would have never believed that McIlroy would still be stuck on four majors in the summer of 2019. But here we are. He has serious scar tissue in these events, and he’s a different player on major weekends than he is at regular Tour events.
15. You have to feel for Phil Mickelson, whose career-long flirtation with the U.S. Open (six runner-up finishes) looks increasingly like it will finish without consummation. He must have had this one circled for a while. He’s won at Pebble Beach five times, more than he has at any other track. And he turned 49 on Sunday—while he’s still one of the longest players on Tour and aging quite well physically, he must know this won’t last forever. This might have been his last, great chance to complete the career Grand Slam. On the bright side: you have to think he’d be a massive favorite should he enter next year’s Senior U.S. Open at Newport Country Club, which he will be eligible for.
16. Player-caddie relationships became a story this week when Fox’s wonderfully sensitive microphones caught Jordan Spieth giving his looper/psychologist Michael Greller a stern talking to. I wrote extensively on this, but I’ll give you the sparknotes version: Player-caddie relationships have changed. A ton. Gone are the days of “show up, keep up and shut up.” We’re in the age of “we did a good job executing our gameplan as a team.” Golf is looking more and more like a team sport. It’s not good and it’s not bad, but it is certainly different.
17. The Fox broadcast was terrific virtually the entire week. They went heavy on technology, tracing virtually every shot, using drones to capture the paradise that is the Monterey Peninsula, putting microphones everywhere, going light on the commercials and heavy on the golf shots. Hats off to them.
18. I know that Pebble Beach is extraordinarily expensive. But if it’s at all feasible, you've got to play there. It is impossible to convey its dramatic beauty in words. The first two holes are unremarkable, but once you turn toward the Pacific after the tee shot on 3, it’s one breathtaking vista after another. The three-hole stretch from 6-8 is rivaled only by Amen Corner. It is golfing heaven, a place where it’s impossible to be upset even if you’re playing the worst round of your life. If you can, go there. Play it. You won’t regret it.