Perfect Venue, Perfect Storm: The 2019 U.S. Open
This year’s U.S. Open has a rare convergence of history at its shoreside doorstep.
Phil Mickelson, one the eve of his 49th birthday, with one last great chance to complete the grand slam.
Dustin Johnson, immensely talented yet historically snake-bit, seeks redemption on a course he’s eviscerated.
Tiger Woods, reigning Masters champion, returns to the site of the greatest performance in golf history.
Rory McIlroy, Sunday 61 in his immediate rear view, looking poised to return to the top of the sport.
Brooks Koepka, a streaking comet of major championship brilliance, looks for an unthinkable third Open in a row.
With an iconic venue serving as host, this U.S. Open should be one remembered fondly for years to come.
LOOKING BACK TO LAST YEAR
Through 36 holes at Shinnecock, Dustin Johnson looked unbeatable. Consecutive rounds in the 60s had Johnson as the only player in the field under par, holding a four-stroke lead.
But the blazing hot putter from the first two days did a 180-degree-spin on the weekend. Johnson needed 73 putts in rounds three and four – a ridiculous 20 putts more than the 53 he hit in rounds one and two. Johnson gained 8.22 strokes on the field putting through two rounds. He lost 5.21 on the weekend.
Saturday at Shinnecock would be defined by the golf course, for better or worse. The field averaged about 5.3 strokes over par, nearly two full strokes tougher than the day before. Though the odd actions of Mickelson stole the show, we entered Sunday with the potential for a crazy finish. 22 players were at or within five shots of the lead entering the final round.
Forty-five years to the day after Johnny Miller recorded the first final round 63 in U.S. Open history, Tommy Fleetwood would match it. Fleetwood would become the first Englishman in more than 100 years to finish in the top-four in consecutive U.S. Opens – Jim Barnes in 1915 and 1916 was the previous man to do it.
Nobody could catch Koepka, though, as he led the field in strokes gained approach and was third in the field in strokes gained putting. Brooks became the first player since Curtis Strange thirty years prior to win the U.S. Open in back-to-back years.
WHAT KOEPKA CAN ACCOMPLISH
The list of incredible things Brooks Koepka could achieve this week is lengthy and worth recounting as fully as possible.
*Brooks is trying to become the first player to win any men’s major championship three straight years since Peter Thomson won The Open three times in a row in 1954, 1955 and 1956.
*He’s looking to become the second player ever to win the U.S. Open three straight years, joining Willie Anderson, who did it in 1903, 1904 and 1905. When Anderson finished the ‘three-peat,’ he opened with scores of 81-80. 1905 was nine years before Babe Ruth made his Major League Baseball debut with the Red Sox.
*With a win, he would join Bobby Jones as the only players in the last 100 years to win the U.S. Open three or more times before turning thirty years old. The previously mentioned Anderson did it, too.
*Koepka is trying to win his fifth major in his last nine major starts. Since the first Masters in 1934, the only two players to go win five majors in a span of nine starts or fewer are Woods and Ben Hogan.
*With a fifth major victory at age 29, Brooks would become the fourth player in men’s golf history to win five or more professional major titles before his 30th birthday, joining Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Jones.
THE TEETH OF PEBBLE BEACH
There are 14 different venues to host the U.S. Open multiple times over the last fifty years. Of that group, Pebble Beach Golf Links has the most difficult par 3 (the 17th hole) and the most difficult par 5 (the 14th hole).
The 14th is especially vexing if a player misses the fairway. In 2010, players to miss the fairway on the 14th hole went on to hit the green in regulation – on a par five, mind you – just 32 percent of the time.
At 17, an absurd 18% of tee shots managed to hit the green in regulation at the 2010 U.S. Open. It played to an average of 3.49, making it the third-toughest hole on the PGA Tour regardless of par for the entire season.
With all that in mind, it’s no surprise that the average round at a Pebble Beach U.S. Open is 4.14 strokes over par – tougher than the average over the last fifty years of 3.90.
NAMES ON THE MARQUEE
With so many of the best players in the world looking like contenders this week in California, we at the 15th Club would be remiss if we didn’t give our readers something on every key name. Here we go (numbers by players names indicate current World Ranking):
- Brooks Koepka
Koepka has played 36 major championship rounds since the beginning of 2017. He has been in the top-five following 22 of them – a clip of 61 percent. Since the ’17 Masters began, Brooks is a combined 54-under-par in majors, 21 strokes better than anyone else in that span. Jordan Spieth is second during that stretch, at -33.
- Dustin Johnson
Over the last thirty years, only Payne Stewart and Tiger have led or co-led after more U.S. Open rounds than Johnson has. He’s been inside the top-ten following 20 U.S. Open rounds this decade, six more than anyone else. He’ll try to overcome the disappointment of 2018, when he joined Tom McNamara in 1909 as the only players in U.S. Open history to lead by four or more through 36 holes and not win.
Over the last 15 years, no player has been better in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am than DJ: he’s averaged 2.52 strokes gained total per round on the field, by far the best of anyone in that span.
- Justin Rose
The consistency Rose has displayed in the last three years has been truly remarkable. Since the beginning of 2017, Rose has more wins (six) than missed cuts (five). During that span, he’s finished in the top-ten in 58 percent of his starts worldwide. Rose has made two starts in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, finishing tied for sixth in his debut in 2016.
- Rory McIlroy
At the RBC Canadian Open, McIlroy became the first player in the PGA Tour ShotLink era (since 2004) to win while finishing in the top-six in the field in strokes gained off the tee, approach, around the green and putting. McIlroy will try to improve on recent disappointment at the U.S. Open – he’s missed the cut three years in a row, posting a combined score to par of +23.
- Tiger Woods
He’s fittingly the only player in history to win multiple major championships in California. If he wins a third this week, he’ll become the oldest player to win multiple majors in the same season. That mark is currently held by Tiger’s old friend Mark O’Meara, who won two majors at age 41 in 1998. Woods’ 70.95 scoring average at U.S. Opens held in California is best of any player over the last thirty years (minimum ten rounds played).
- Justin Thomas
Only three players have averaged more birdies per round in the U.S. Open since 2010 than JT has, with 3.57. He’s one of the few American stars without much history at Pebble as a pro: Thomas has only played the Pebble Beach Pro-Am once – missing the cut in 2014.
- Francesco Molinari
Through 65 holes at this year’s Masters, Molinari had made only two bogeys, a clip of 3.1 percent. Since then, he’s a combined 16-over-par in official events, making bogey or worse on nearly 20 percent of his holes played. Francesco has never finished in the top-20 in nine previous U.S. Open starts.
- Patrick Cantlay
Quick – name the three players who are a combined -10 or better through the season’s first two majors? The answer: Koepka, DJ and Cantlay. The Memorial Tournament champion is second on the PGA Tour in scoring average, second in strokes gained tee to green and second in approach shot proximity from the fairway. Add in the fact that he leads the Tour in scrambling and bogey avoidance, and you can see why the former UCLA standout is growing traction as a pick this week.
Cantlay is currently third in the 15th Club Performance Index, trailing only DJ and Rory.
- Bryson DeChambeau
Recent form isn’t shining on DeChambeau, as he hasn’t recorded a top-20 finish worldwide since February and has missed three of his last four cuts. Bryson is down 50 spots this season in strokes gained approach, dropping from 12th last year to 62nd in 2019. He’s circling plenty of numbers on the scorecard, ranking fourth in birdie average, but is 84th in bogey avoidance.
- Xander Schauffele
Schauffele is fourth in scoring average at the U.S. Open since 2014 among players with eight or more rounds, trailing only Koepka, DJ and Fleetwood. In only nine major championship starts, Xander has four top-five finishes, showcasing a propensity to flourish on the big stage. His play has been more consistent in 2019, as well – after ranking 46th in strokes gained total last year, he’s 12th this season.
- Jon Rahm
In ten career PGA Tour starts in the state of California, Rahm has a pair of wins and six top-ten finishes. In fact, his scoring average of 68.9 in California is the best of any player since Rahm turned professional. Over the last six majors, Rahm has been boom-or-bust – he has three top-ten finishes and three missed cuts in that span.
Rahm is a combined 119-under-par in ten career professional starts in California.
- Jason Day
Day missed the cut each of the last two years at the U.S. Open, but is still among the leaders in several statistics at this championship this decade. No player has more bogey-free rounds at the U.S. Open this decade than Day does. Since 2010, he’s fourth among all players in scoring average and tied for third in rounds inside the top-ten. Throw in some remarkable play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am (eight top-15s in ten starts), and Day is worth a look this week.
- Phil Mickelson
The numbers for Phil don’t foster much optimism this week. He doesn’t have a top-15 finish since winning at Pebble Beach in February. He is a combined 22-over in his last nine PGA Tour rounds. He’s 78th on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green, which would be his worst ranking over the course of an entire PGA Tour season. He’s 208th of 209 players on Tour in driving accuracy this season.
Not only is Lefty’s total of six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open the most of any player in history, it’s the most second place finishes by any player in a single major championship without a win.
So, what if? What if Phil, on his 49th birthday this Sunday, becomes the oldest major champion in the history of the game? What if he breaks through with the one championship left in this sport for him to win? What if he did it on this golf course, where he’s made so many great memories in the past? It’s too good to be true, right?
- Jordan Spieth
For the first time in 18 months, Jordan Spieth will enter a golf tournament coming off three consecutive top-ten finishes. Spieth’s recent resurgence is mostly due to his putting: in his last 16 rounds, he’s gained a total of 6.9 strokes on his opposition tee-to-green, while gaining 28.3 strokes putting during that stretch.
Spieth has had past success here, winning the Pro-Am in 2016, but the deeper numbers suggest he has some comparative struggles when putting on poa annua, like he will this week. Spieth is about 0.35 strokes worse per round on the greens on poa compared to all other PGA Tour surfaces.