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The Pebble Mystique

There have been five U.S. Opens contested at America’s most hallowed public ground, Pebble Beach on the Monterrey Peninsula. In 1972 Jack Nicklaus triumphed while at the height of his prowess as did Tom Watson in 1982 and Tiger Woods in 2000 (for a great many his 15-stroke decimation of the field that week was the greatest performance in Major Championship history). To read more about the history of this special place see https://www.birdgolf.com/the-pebble-mystique/

The USGA has received deserved criticism for their set-up of Open courses over the last few years having made some venerable venues almost unplayable (Shinnecock) but their preparation of Pebble this week received universal praise.

After the opening round a staggering (for a U.S. Open) 39 players were under par.

Usually an Open course is set up with a reverence to ‘par’, where an ideal scorecard might be 17 pars and one bogey and the week’s winning score is even par. Not so this week. The fescue was grown out around the greens and the rough was more like wayward cabbage rather than grass, but the greens were not too fast, leaving a layout that was playable.

The field was led by Englishman Justin Rose who only needed 22 putts in his 6-under par round of 65 (which tied Woods’ in 2000 for the lowest round at the U.S. Open at Pebble) to take a one-shot advantage over a quartet of players. Americans, Aaron Wise, Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler and South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen were at 5-under and one shot clear of two more Americans, Scott Piercy and Nate Lashley.

Rory McIlroy was in a cluster of 8 players at 3-under. The 30-year superstar from Ulster is coming off his 7-shot runaway win at last week’s RBC Canadian Open when he closed with a superlative 61. In doing so he became only the sixth player in history to have won all three of the PGA Tour’s three oldest Championships: the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2014 Open and the 2019 Canadian Open. Combined with his win at the PLAYERS Championship in April, McIlroy is playing at the heights of his considerable talents. Sharing 3-under with McIlroy were Americans, Gary Woodland, Chez Reavie and Chesson Hadley.   

Included in the massive group of 12 players at 2-under were Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Spain’s Sergio Garcia, Australia’s Marc Leishman, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (who won the U.S. Open here the last time it was played in 2010), Americans Matt Kuchar, Bryson DeChambeau and two-time defending U.S. Open Champion, Brooks Koepka.

Another dozen players were at 1-under and counted Australians Adam Scott and Jason Day and Woods in their number.       

Rose maintained on Friday’s second round with a hard fought 1-under 70 giving him a two-day total of 7-under and the early clubhouse lead. Oosthuizen matched Rose’s 70 to be one behind at 6-under, a shot clear of Wise at 5-under. McIlroy was not at his best, but a 2-under 69 would see him tied with Wise.

Five players were a further shot behind at 4-under; England’s Matt Wallace, Koepka, Kuchar, Reavie and Hadley. Eight players were tied at 3-under and included Spain’s Jon Rahm, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, American Zach Johnson, Garcia, Scott, Piercy, McDowell and Schauffele.

But day two belonged to long-hitting Gary Woodland whose bogey-free 6-under 65 was the day’s best score and helped him to a two-shot advantage at 9-under over Rose. The 35-year old from Topeka, Kansas is a 3-time winner on the PGA Tour and no stranger to the biggest stages. Last year at the PGA Championship he also had the halfway lead with a tournament record 130 before ultimately finishing 6th behind Koepka.    

Saturday’s best round, a 4-under 67, was authored by England’s Danny Willet who has been missing in action since his surprise win at the 2016 Masters. Willett would leapfrog into 10th place which at the end of the day left him 7 shots behind the leader, Woodland.

Woodland scrambled his way to a 2-under 69 which was highlighted by two amazing par-saves on the 12th where he chipped in and the 14th when he holed a 43 ft. putt to avoid a potential disaster on both holes.

Woodland was paired with Rose, whose 3-under 68 was a U.S. Open blueprint in how to manage your way around a Major venue. The 2013 Champion has spent several months in the last year as the #1 ranked player in the world and his ball striking on Saturday left him a shot behind Woodland at 10-under heading into Sunday.

Woodland and Rose had separated themselves from the rest of the field but there were still some of the game’s superstar within reach. First amongst those was Koepka who fired a 3-under 68 of his own to be at 7-under in search of his third consecutive U.S. Open. Koepka is also on a historic run of having won four of the last eight Majors contested https://www.birdgolf.com/a-fourth-for-koepka/  He was joined in a tie for 3rd with Reavie and Oosthuizen.

A stroke back at 6-under were McIlroy whose 1-under 70 was the highest he could have recorded on a day when he could not buy a putt.

Kuchar, who may now hold the title that no-one wants; “the best player never to win a Major” was at 5-under with Hadley. Wallace, Rahm, Stenson and McDowell joined Willett at 4-under to stay on the periphery of contention but any of them would need something truly special to capture America’s oldest Major.    

There were some early moves from the chasers on Sunday led by Scott who was 6-under through his first 12 holes to reach 9-under for the tournament before his charge was derailed by a double bogey on the 13th.

Koepka was also on a torrid pace early in his round with birdies on 4 of his first 5 holes to reach 11-under before he too would stall on the middle stretch of the course (the hard holes are from #’s 8-12).

Woodland though was unflappable on his front-9 and was 2-under after the 8th hole to be two clear of Rose, before surrendering a shot on the 9th to fall to 12-under and just one ahead.

He continued to be immune to pressure of the moment because sometimes in life you have to be completely tested, before you know how really good you are.

And Woodland more than passed the test. Faced with one challenge after another, asbestos free Woodland stood fast to every challenge, which he resisted with calm and precision. First, with a birdie on the par-5 14th, followed with three straights pars, from #’s 15-17, and then with an exclamation point, a birdie on the 18th.

Woodland bested Koepka by 3 and became the most deserving winner.

Rose was betrayed by the putter that had served his so well for the first 3 and a half days had fallen back to 7-under ending up in a tie for 3rd with Rahm, Schauffele and Reavie.

But the 2019 U.S. Open belonged rightfully to one man. It will be a life changing moment for Woodland; and so it should be.