Congratulations to Gary Woodland, your new US Open champion! He survived a week at one America’s premiere courses, against (what is supposed to be) the toughest test in golf, and stared down the best player in the world to come out on top.
The US Open is almost universally considered the hardest tournament in the world. A lot of that has to do with the course itself, but also has something to do with the qualification process. It starts at the local level, with qualifying tournaments all around the country, something like 9,000 entrants, and works its way up to the big show.
Winning this tournament requires one to be at the top of their game. Accuracy off the tee, because fairways are the width of the aisle on an airplane, and the rough is seemingly a foot tall. Touch around the green, because green speeds are roughly that of glass. Excellence at reading putts, because pins are placed in some of the trickiest possible locations. And nerves of absolute steel, because… Well because duh, that’s all incredibly difficult.
This year, the host course was Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. This allowed for one of life’s underrated little pleasures, at least for those of us outside of California. Golf in prime time. There’s few things I like more, than getting home from work, plopping on the couch, and seeing live action instead of a replay. Conditions seemed perfect, the course was getting rave reviews, and it is a stunningly beautiful piece of land. There was a sense that this tournament could produce some special things, and for the most part, it delivered.
Brooks Koepka was trying for the nearly unthinkable, winning a third US Open in a row. That hasn’t happened since 1905, with Scotsman Willie Anderson. Brooks was also trying to win his fifth major title in the last 3 years. There was also Phil Mickelson making yet another attempt at finishing off the career Grand Slam, in his home state no less.
It was a chilly Thursday, as far as California is concerned, with temps in “only” the mid-60’s and some cloud cover. This lead to some softer conditions, with greens holding more moisture than a typical US Open, and the scores showed it. Justin Rose came out swinging, ending the day on top of the leaderboard after a 6-under 65. Which is somewhat of an anomaly, as he only hit 50% of fairways, and 50% of greens in regulation. What he did do, though, was putt the hell out of the ball. He played the 18 holes in only 22 putts, averaging 1.22 putts per hole. He had a +2.78 Strokes Gained Approach, and a ridiculous +5.83 SG Putting. Those numbers may not make sense to some of you, but in simplified terms, it means that he was nearly 6 shots better than the average PGA Tour player with a putter in his hands for this round.
Some more leaderboard highlights: Xander Schauffle, Louis Oosthuizen, Rickie Fowler, and Aaron Wise were all tied for 2nd after opening with rounds of 66. Eight players, including Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, and man-of-the-week Woodland all got around in 67 swings. Among those just 3 back were Koepka, Graeme McDowell, and Matt Kuchar. Amateur Viktor Hovland, from Oklahoma State University, also had a 69 but we will come back to him later. Tiger Woods and Jason Day were part of the group who shot 1-under 70, while Jordan Speith and Mickelson made it around in even par 71’s.
Friday was even cooler and cloudier, but that didn’t stop the scoring barrage. Woodland shot 65, Koepka shot another 69, so did Rory, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Kuchar, and Speith. Tiger could never put it all together, and shot a 1-over 72. A few surprises were out there, though, with guys like Chez Reavie and Chesson Hadley making the first page of the scoreboard. Both finished round 2 at -3.
Some big names failed to take advantage, though, and didn’t get the opportunity to play the weekend. Guys like Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, and Ernie Els all struggled to score. But the positive reviews for Pebble continued to roll in.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as Patrick Reed made his displeasure obvious. Not with the course, but more with himself.
As play got into the weekend, fan seemed anxious, hoping that the famously difficult US Open would get harder. This tournament, unlike most others, has historically been set up to “protect par”, that magical number that has taken hold the golf world. There is, and will continue to be, a lengthy debate about what par really is, and whether it means anything anymore. Many fans were unhappy with how easy things seemed, with the hashtag #NotMyUSOpen springing up on social media.
I fall firmly into the camp that par is irrelevant on the PGA Tour anymore, but it’s not going away any time soon, so I won’t waste a lot of time on the topic. But, suffice to say, I had no issue with how things were playing out. Guys were rewarded for hitting good shots, and penalized for hitting bad ones. It’s easy to forget sometimes just how good these guys are. They aren’t like you and me, or even the best golfer you personally know. They are way, WAY better. Like “from a different planet” better, and they were showing it.
Saturday saw more red numbers, with guys like Koepka, Rose, Woodland, Jon Rahm, and Oosthuizen all continuing their under par weeks. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Graeme McDowell also moved up the board. Tiger ground out an even-par 71, while Phil started to fade a little earlier than usual with a 4-over 75 moving him further behind.
Arguably the highlight, or lowlight depending on how you feel about selfies, was Henrik Stenson. After a cold shank into the fans on 16, which hit someone in the head, Stenson showed up and the guy was still on the ground. Then this happened:
Sunday was set to be something special, and boy-howdy it was. Players were in aggressive mode, with the likes of Webb Simpson (66) and Xander Schauffele (67) posting early good rounds. Even Tiger, after going +4 through the first 6 holes, managed to claw his way back with birdies at 13, 14, 16, and 17. He got to -2 on the week to finish tied for 21st.
As I mentioned earlier, Viktor Hovland finished as the lowest-scoring amateur in the field, ending his week at -4 with a total of 280 strokes. That mark broke the record for lowest score by an amateur, which had previously been held by the one and only Jack Nicklaus, after he shot 282 back in 1960. Hovland will waste no more time, turning pro right after the tournament, and making his professional debut next week in Connecticut. He adds yet another pro to the lineup from Oklahoma State University, joining the likes of Hunter Mahan, Alex Noren, and Rickie Fowler along with teammate Matthew Wolff.
Everything was leading up to the three guys at the top of the sheet. Gary Woodland, seeking his first-ever major title, sitting on a 54-hole lead of just one stroke. He was 0-fer in every previous attempt, and had never held a lead this late in a major. Playing alongside Justin Rose, 2013 US Open Champion, and one of the steadiest players in the game. One group ahead of them was Koepka. He was four back of Woodland, but that didn’t last long.
Brooks birdied 4 of the first 5 holes, making an early charge and ensuring Woodland would hear footsteps all day. Woodland was up to the challenge, though, with birdies on 2 and 3 to hold a 2-shot lead heading into the back 9. One of the defining characteristics of Pebble Beach is the difference between front and back nines. This photo is from Saturday, but it clearly explains what I mean better than I could put into words.
A birdie on 11 put Brooks only 1 back, and brought the possibility of a 3-peat from “What if?” to “Is this really happening?!?” He gave that shot right back, with a bogey on 12. Soon after, though, Woodland also bogeyed 12 and we were right back into it. Then things got heroic. After a beautiful drive on 14, Woodland faced a 260 yard 2nd shot into the par-5, and did this…
It probably doesn’t look like much, but it takes some major stones to even attempt that shot, let alone pull it off. He chipped that on, and made the putt, to move himself back to a two-stroke lead with just 3 holes to play. Koepka was stuck in a par rut, if you could call it that, and just couldn’t get out of it. He had a chance at birdie on 18 to put some big-time pressure one, but it just slid away from the cup and he settled for par. While that was going on, Woodland was in a bad spot on 17 green. Facing a shot that basically was the entire length of the green, and an awkward nub of long grass between him and the hole, he dug into his bag of tricks one more time. This is just sick.
He would make that putt to secure a two-shot lead heading into the final hole. All he needed was for it not to be a disaster. He played it safe with the drive, laid up to a distance he felt comfortable with, and got it safely on the green. He had three putts to win the championship, but he only needed one.
Congrats Gary. A truly nice man (just go find him Face-timing his friend Amy, who has Down’s Syndrome, that he met at the Waste Management Open earlier this year.) and a pro who has been grinding on Tour for years. There are few players I can think of more deserving of a moment like this one.