It’s a really exciting time in the world of golf right now.
Tiger Woods delivered one of the most nostalgic performances in sports history when he won the Masters in April to collect his first Major in 11 years.
Brooks Koepka then gave off vintage Tiger dominance vibes when he took a seven-shot lead into the final round of the PGA Championship, ultimately defending his title and winning a you-know-who-like fourth Major out the last eight he has played.
And now the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach for a sixth time, overflowing with storylines. Can Phil Mickelson complete the career grand slam – on his birthday? Can Dustin Johnson chase down the one that got away? Will past Pebble Beach winner Jordan Spieth find his Major mojo again?
Who will join Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Woods and Graeme McDowell and win a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? Here are five storylines to watch:
There have now been six rounds of 63 shot in the U.S. Open. And after Tommy Fleetwood’s heroics at Shinnecock fell one-stroke shy of Koepka, a 63 has been shot in each of the last two U.S. Opens. Could Pebble Beach be due for a 63 in 2019?
Tiger Woods established the Pebble Beach U.S. Open record with a first-round 6-under 65 in 2000 to set the pace during his historic 15-shot victory. Woods, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson all exchanged 66s in 2010. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am record is a 62. Texas Tech golfer Hurly Long has everyone beat with an 11-under 61 during a college event in 2017.
In 2010, Pebble Beach Golf Links stretched out to 7,040 yards. In 2019, Pebble Beach will play just 35 yards longer than that. Only Merion in 2013 has played (fractionally) shorter. In an era of U.S. Open courses approaching 8,000 yards, how will Pebble Beach present the toughest test in golf?
Pebble Beach has always relied on the smallest greens on the PGA TOUR, combined with a U.S. Open premium on hitting fairways, the intimidating Pacific Ocean, and the added wildcard of wind. The playing conditions in the summer will be firm and fast, and restorations to the ninth, 13th, 14th and 17th greens have created additional hole locations when the Stimpmeter approaches 15 feet.
But Pebble Beach is essentially the same golf course as 2010, with the noticeable exception of an additional tee box on No. 9 that stretches the rollercoaster par-4 to nearly 530 yards, if the USGA so chooses. (The USGA did tease some interesting setup ideas at this year’s U.S. Amateur that we might see again.)
Over the last two U.S. Opens, only one player has broken par — Woods. Will that be true again in 2019?
For three days in 2010, Johnson played brilliantly at Pebble Beach, building a three-shot lead while cruising to 6-under for the championship. The two-time AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am champion was on the verge of winning his first career Major. But then Johnson unraveled. His nightmarish final-round was symbolized by a cartoonish left-handed whiffed chip that led to a triple-bogey on the second hole, effectively throwing his lead into the ocean. Johnson closed with an 11-over 82, the highest score shot by a third-round leader since 1911.
Johnson will return to the site of the one that got away — he only needed a 5-over 76 to win — fresh off another one that got away. Johnson owned a four-shot lead after 36 holes at Shinnecock, and was still tied for first after three rounds, before ultimately losing by two. Will Johnson be doubly motivated to avenge both defeats at Pebble Beach? Johnson did impressively win his first U.S. Open at Oakmont in 2016, a year after three-putting the 72nd hole to lose by one at Chambers Bay.
A win would heal decades of U.S. Open heartbreak, including six runner-up finishes, plus a tie for fourth here in 2010. If you could write a fairy tale ending for Mickelson, this would be it.
Mickelson will turn 49 on Sunday of the 2019 U.S. Open. He’s won every Major except this one. It’s at Pebble Beach, the home of five of his PGA TOUR victories. A win would heal decades of U.S. Open heartbreak, including six runner-up finishes, a tie for fourth here in 2010, and whatever this was on the 13th green at Shinnecock. If you could write a fairy tale ending for Mickelson, this would be it. The oldest U.S. Open winner was Hale Irwin at age 45.
Heading into this year’s U.S. Open, Woods hadn’t even locked up a spot in the 2019 field. His 10-year exemption for winning the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines was in danger of expiring at the end of the season. But then Woods channeled his past powers, nostalgically charging up the leaderboard at both the British Open and PGA Championships before falling just short.
Woods opened the 2019 Major season with a Masters win unlike any other. That moment recalibrated what seems possible for the rest of Woods’ career.
But that was just the beginning. Woods won the Tour Championship to close out the year, and opened the 2019 Major season with a Masters win unlike any other. That moment recalibrated what seemed possible for the rest of Woods’ career. Suddenly, 18 Majors was back on the table. Woods now returns to the site of his most dominant conquest. He also could have repeated at the 2010 U.S. Open, finishing three shots back, when an even-par 71 in the final-round would have won it.
Do Phil and Tiger have any more Pebble magic?
If Woods hadn’t edged Koepka by one stroke at this year’s Masters, we’d be talking about the pursuit of some sort of BrookSlam. Instead, Koepka has merely won two of the last three Majors, three of the last five, and four of the last eight he has played.
Koepka’s successful defenses of the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 PGA Championship make him the first player in golf history to own back-to-back victories in two different Majors simultaneously.
Simply put, Koepka is the guy to beat, and he can make even more history by winning a third straight U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Only Willie Anderson (1903-05) has won three straight U.S. Opens, and that record is nearly as old as the championship itself.
Koepka has played Pebble Beach just once on the PGA TOUR, when he tied for eighth in the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
But at this point, is anyone really betting against him?
Photography by Tom O’Neal and PGA TOUR Images