PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland (-11) leads the U.S. Open by one over Justin Rose and four over Brooks Koepka, Chez Reavie and Louis Oosthuizen. That’s not necessarily the splashiest Sunday lead-in, but what is exciting is thinking about whether Woodland can be caught and who could possibly catch him.
The first and most obvious choice is the man who trails him by just one, Rose. But that’s not where I want to start. That’s because Rose’s week has been held together with super glue and bubble gum. He’s tops in the field in putting and chipping but 63rd in greens in regulation. That’s no way to win a U.S. Open, so we’ll get to him in a minute.
Let’s start with Koepka because all major championship conversations seem to start with him these days. The back-to-back winner of this event fired a 68 on Saturday to go along with two 69s on Thursday and Friday. Early in the round, it looked like that 68 would be even better. Koepka played his first 11 holes in 3 under but pared home after that to finish the first three rounds at 7 under.
“I feel as confident as ever right now,” he said. “It’s probably the best ball-striking week I’ve had.”
It might be. Koepka leads the field in approach shots and greens in regulation. It’s been an exhibition sullied by the fact that he can’t find the bottom of the cup. Through 54 holes, Koepka is 62nd in putting. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, walked past us after his boss lipped another one on No. 17 on Saturday and just laughed. It’s almost impossible to score like this when you’re hitting it like that.
If they start falling early on Sunday, though, Koepka could turn into the runaway freight train his body suggests he can be, and there may be nothing Woodland and Rose can do.
There are other, ethereal things at stake here, too.
The way Koepka walks after his bludgeoned golf ball suggests that a natural order of golf does exist. His strut around this track backs up his talk about this tournament. I do not make these rules, and I realize they sound slightly zany, but if you’ve ever walked with Koepka at a major championship on a weekend then you understand what I mean. He walks like a man who, though he has no deed to the property, is the owner of this place. It’s how he walked on Saturday, and it’s how he’ll walk on Sunday.
King Koepka will try in Round 4 to become the first golfer in 114 years to win three straight national championships. He’ll play just ahead of Rose and Woodland with Reavie, and he’ll take aim at a 68, 67 or 66 and hope it’s good enough. If Woodland is to be caught, Koepka has the best chance to do it.
It would be a fitting win. There is a natural order to Carmel-by-the-Sea, to this entire place. Adults drink wine with dinner. Children wear Vineyard Vines. Seagulls pick at crumbs on the 18th fairway. This is the way things are here. It’s the way they’ll always be.
So it makes sense that Koepka would win his third in a row in this spot. Pebble Beach is beautiful, the food on the coast is magnificent, and Brooks Koepka wins national championships. Sunday may prove different, but the natural order always feels inevitable.
Here’s who else can catch Woodland.
Justin Rose (-10): It’s been fascinating to watch. If he takes his second U.S. Open, we’ll look back at the first three days and say, “Heart of a champion!” If he shoots 75 on Sunday, we’ll say, “See, that’s no way to win a major!” I honestly have no idea how it’s going to go, but Sunday in majors can often be like Game 7s in NBA or NHL Finals. All you need to do is get there, and then something special — which I believe Rose possesses — takes over.
Rory McIlroy (-6): He has to start better than he did on Saturday. If he bogeys the first, that’s a wrap. McIlroy has never come from behind like this to win a major, and I don’t suspect he will on Sunday. However (!) there are two champs capable of flirting with 66 or 65 to steal the trophy. One is King Koepka … the other is McIlroy.
Louis Oosthuizen (-7): I actually love this spot for him. I don’t know that I fully trust him right at the lead or in the final pairing, but from four back with players dropping at the hands of the USGA behind him? Yeah, I love that. He can join Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only winners of Pebble Beach and St. Andrews.
Chez Reavie (-7): It’s a great story, and Reavie played bravely on Saturday. But if Chez Reavie joins Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Tom Kite as Pebble Beach-hosted U.S. Open winners, then there are going to be some 1,000-yard stares in the media center on Sunday evening.