PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Winning any of golf’s major championships could be considered the most arduous task in all of individual sport. In other endeavors — think tennis or even track and field — not all of the competitors are competing at the same time for the same prize. Athletes are matched up or grouped in bunches in such a way that they must focus on defeating one other human … or maybe a handful of them.
In golf, you just roll it out and whoever swings their golf clubs the fewest times in a given week is the one who gets to drink alcohol from the trophy on Sunday evening. It’s a fascinating thing — as many have noted — that the part of golf that’s the most fun (the striking of the ball) is what you’re actually trying to do less than anyone else in a given event.
And this week at Pebble Beach, for the 119th edition of the United States Open, it will likely be the best strikers of the golf ball from Pebble’s “carpeted” fairways who find themselves in the heat of a late Sunday gallop to the famous 18th hole on this seaside track. Because while Pebble and the U.S. Open both demand so much from your game, they demand nothing more than they demand elite iron play to impossibly small greens.
With that in mind, here are five things our eventual champion will likely have checked off this week’s list en route to taking the third major championship of 2019.
1. Wind and distance management: This is why I don’t love somebody like Rory McIlroy, who sometimes struggles with distance control. Here’s what one anonymous caddie recently told Golf Digest about controlling irons and wedges.
Distance control. Playing along the ocean at sea level with cooler temperatures and fluctuating wind speed and elevation changes—all this combines to make distance control extremely difficult. Pebble’s small greens expose who can manage it in a hurry.
We’ll talk about finding some luck in a bit, but half shots, three-quarters shots and myriad knockdowns are going to be not just useful but outright necessary for this year’s winner. It’s actually a great scenario for somebody like Phil Mickelson if his driving route to the fairway to hit said knockdowns didn’t look like a Rorschach test.
2. Among the leaders in proximity to the hole: This is almost a “by definition” result of the task at hand. Pebble champs hit loads of greens in regulation, and because these greens are so small, it would be difficult to not also rank high in proximity to the hole this week. Your current top 25 on the PGA Tour in this category includes some interesting names like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Patrick Cantlay and Matt Kuchar.
3. Scramble city: One reason I’m fascinated by Jordan Spieth this week is because I believe the eventual winner is going to scramble like a wartime communication device for all 72. I don’t know that you can win a U.S. Open by getting up and down 68 of 72 times, but Spieth might give that a go, and he might have to given how he’s been hitting it and how close to the edge (of the greens) the USGA has developed this year’s rough.
4. One moment we consider abnormally fortunate: Here’s the unintended consequence of small greens and huge rough — on the razor’s edge of finishing first and second at a U.S. Open, often a lucky lie can determine the championship. Think about this in the context of that Patrick Cantlay video.
Obviously, this wasn’t the case with Tiger Woods in 2000 because he could have hit every one of his Sunday drives in a divot and still won by six, but not every year is Tiger in 2000. Something zany is going to happen on the weekend at this event — because something zany always happens on the weekend — and even if the drama isn’t captured on television, we’ll hear about and remember a good break the winner caught over the final 36 holes. Whether that’s a good lie or some nice weather (remember Tony Finau and Daniel Berger playing the last tee time in 2018?!) remains to be seen, but it’s almost a certainty that this will be the case.
5. Calm head space: I’m starting to believe Brooks Koepka. “So obviously they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do,” Koepka said of his colleagues who complain about USGA setups. “So they’re not playing good enough. If they put it in the fairway, you shouldn’t have to complain about the rough. You hit the greens and you hit it close, you shouldn’t have to complain about the greens.
“I’ve just been never one to complain, make excuses. It doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to hear anybody’s excuse. I find it annoying even when I play with guys and they’re dropping clubs or throwing them or complaining, like telling me how bad the golf course is or how bad this is. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just something we’ve all got to deal with. If you play good enough, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
When you combine that austerity of Pebble Beach with a semi-devilish streak from the USGA, you get a spectrum of thoughts and contemplation that could melt brain matter. Not many are constructed to deal with one or the other, much less both. This, more than the way he strikes it or putts it, is why Koepka should be considered one of the handful of favorites, and it’s one reason he and D.J. have crushed at U.S. Opens over the last few years. They just don’t care or refuse to acknowledge all the periphery stuff. They don’t waste energy on the nonsense. I don’t know if that means one of them will win, but it does mean that if they don’t, it will be someone who emulates the attitude both of them possess.