2019 US Open Preview, Picks and Analysis
THE US Open returns to the iconic Pebble Beach, with all eyes on Brooks Koepka as he attempts to become the first golfer in modern times to win the tournament for a third successive time. And who in their right minds would bet against him achieving precisely that?
The other storyline centres around Tiger Woods and his attempt to land his 16th major title on a course where he once destroyed the field by a mind-boggling 15 strokes. Of one thing you can be certain - if Woods does win, it will not be by such a huge margin. His build-up to the US PGA Championship saw him play no competitive golf after his stunning victory at The Masters in April. He hasn’t made the same mistake this time, playing well enough at The Memorial Tournament to give his fans encouragement that he could be about to write another remarkable chapter in his comeback. He even briefly threatened to pull of a highly unlikely victory at Muirfield Village, but had given himself too much to do and had to settle for a final found of 67.
And then, of course, there is the question of how Pebble Beach is going to be set up. Woods is one of a number of players to have called upon the USGA to produce a traditional US Open layout. He said that he wants a course with narrow fairways and knee-high rough. There may be some who raise their eyebrows at the thought of Woods calling for a tough set-up but he knows that it gives him the best chance of winning.
“I always thought it was just narrow fairways, hit it in the fairway or hack out, move on,” Woods said. “Now there's chipping areas around the greens. There's less rough. Graduated rough. They try to make the [U.S.] Open different, strategically different. I just like it when there's high rough and narrow fairways, and go get it, boys.”
Last year’s tournament at Shinnecock Hills was a farce, embodied by Phil Mickelson hitting a moving ball on a green as fast as glass. He is a six-time runner-up in this tournament but is clearly not looking forward to Pebble Beach. “I've played, what, 29 U.S. Opens,” he said. And 100% of the time the USGA have messed it up if it doesn't rain. The rain is the governor. That's the only governor they have. If they don't have a governor, they don't know how to control themselves. If it doesn't rain, 100% of the time it will be messed up.”
Strong words indeed. But the USGA has promised that things will be different this time.
“We’re listening a lot and having a dialogue with the players,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “Some of it was about new rules. Some of it is concerns about the distance initiative. Some of it is US Open and the way the courses have been set up in the past. It’s a combination of things. But we’re looking forward, and we obviously want to work with the PGA Tour. There are so many great players, and we want to get it right.”
McIlroy, for one, is willing to give them a chance to redeem themselves.
“They're trying to do as good a job as they can but I think they'll admit they've made a couple of mistakes over the last couple of years. Everyone does,” he said. “We should give them the chance to redeem themselves. If they can't redeem themselves at Pebble Beach, then there could be a problem. I guess in my head, growing up watching the U.S. Opens, it was tight fairways, it was thick rough. It was a premium on accuracy and precision. Some of the golf courses we played and some of the setups over the last couple of years have went a little bit away from that. We play one Open Championship a year; we don't need to play two.”
This is a big tournament for McIlroy, who missed the cut at Muirfield Village precisely because he could barely find a fairway on a golf course that demands accuracy, but shot back to form brilliantly at the Canadian Open, winning by seven shots. It is one of golf’s great conundrums that McIlroy, now aged 30, still only has four majors to his name and hasn’t won one since The Open in 2014. Every year he seems to come up with a new strategy designed to end that drought. The plan for 2019 was to focus his efforts almost entirely on the PGA Tour. So much for that plan, although, in fairness, his missed cut at The Memorial was his first of the season. But he failed to contend at either The Masters of the US PGA.
Pebble Beach should be made to measure for him, but only if his iron play is dialled in and only if he has hit putting boots on.
Your correspondent believes that the man to watch this week is Jordan Spieth. He hasn’t won a tournament of any description since triumphing at The Open at Royal Birkdale in 2017. And his form until recently has been nothing short of abysmal. However, he has now enjoyed a couple of top-10 finishes and the good news for his fans is that he has once again discovered that magical putting touch. And the tougher the course, the harder the challenge, the better Spieth likes it. He has had a miserable run but there is now a spring in his step once more. Spieth is ready to win once more. And this could be the week when it happens.
It is also difficult not to consider the claims of Dustin Johnson. He is enjoying another remarkable season and he is a past winner of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am here. It was also at this course that he crumbled during the final round of the US Open in 2010, dropping shots like confetti as his swing deserted him to let Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell pass him and win his first and, to date, only major championship. Johnson is still inclined to have the occasional final-round collapse but he also has the ability to wipe those disappointments from his mind and turn up the next week like nothing has happened. He is a magnificent driver of the golf ball, a brilliant short-iron player and a wonderful putter. And it is time he added to his major tally.
Justin Rose will feel the same way, and there were some encouraging signs at Muirfield Village that the Englishman has rediscovered his very best form at exactly the right time. It was a massive shock when he missed the cut at The Masters for the first time in his career and it affected his confidence. But Rose is a cool character and has been working hard on his game. He will be there or thereabouts. The other European challenger to keep an eye on is Tommy Fleetwood, who will be hoping for a bit of wind blowing in from the Pacific. His first victory on American soil is overdue and he will be hoping to put that right at Pebble Beach.
If you are looking for a decent each-way bet then you might want to splash a few bob on Matt Wallace, who showed at the US PGA Championship exactly why so many people rate him so highly. He is a magnificent ball striker and has a wonderful short game. And nobody intimidates him.
Jordan Spieth. Ready to add to his major tally
Tiger Woods. Great memories of Pebble Beach
Dustin Johnson. Adores this golf course
Jordan Spieth. Has found his putting boots again
Tiger Woods. Don’t rule out major number 16
Dustin Johnson. Contends every week
Justin Rose. Ready to land his second major
Hideki Matsuyama. Getting better with every passing week
Tommy Fleetwood. Will relish the challenge
Ian Poulter. Should suit him down to the ground
Matt Wallace. Now a world-class performer
Brooks Koepka. Looking to write his place in the history books
Rory McIlroy. In desperate need of a major victory
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