By Norm Elrod
(CBS San Francisco) — Pebble Beach is pulling double duty on this year’s PGA Tour. The iconic course, nestled along the rocky northern California coast, hosted the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am back in February. And this week it welcomes the 119th U.S. Open Championship.
The storylines abound, from Tiger Woods to Brooks Koepka to Rory McIlroy to Jordan Spieth. And those are just the headliners rolling into the season’s third major. There’s so much more.
Ever since Tiger’s triumphant showing at the Masters, the Jack Nicklaus chase is back on. Woods owns 15 major titles, including three U.S. Opens. Nicklaus boasts 18 majors, including four U.S. Opens. Can Tiger pull one step closer? Can he do it by winning at Augusta and Pebble Beach in the same year?
Koepka claimed this season’s second major, jumping out to a giant lead at the PGA Championship before fending off Dustin Johnson for the win. He’s also won the last two U.S Opens, setting up the possibility that the Bay Area will enjoy two three-peats this coming Sunday. A lot of golf (and basketball) must be played before then.
McIlroy has been on fire this year, consistently landing in the top 10 on the leaderboard and most recently winning the RBC Canadian Open going away. However, he’s also missed the cut at the last three U.S. Opens and at his last Pebble Beach appearance in 2018, which, to be fair, also included rounds at Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula. Further still, McIlroy hasn’t won a major in five years. So what Rory will show up?
That question has been asked of Jordan Spieth a lot this season, and until lately, the answer has been the wrong Jordan Spieth. But the 2015 U.S. Open champion seemed to step out of the rough about a month ago with a T3 at the PGA Championship. He’s since followed that up with two more top-10 finishes at the Fort Worth Invitational and Memorial Tournament. Can he continue that top-10 streak or, even better, win another major?
That’s just a sampling of big-name storylines. There are others. Unsurprisingly, the field at Pebble Beach is stacked top to bottom with the PGA Tour’s best, including every one of the world’s top 20 golfers, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose among them. Johnson is the last champion not named Koepka. But every champion dating back to 2008 will tee it up Thursday.
Pebble Beach, celebrating its 100th anniversary, is certainly worthy of this stellar field. With the Pacific as its backdrop, the course is as magnificent as it is difficult. Pebble Beach plays at a par-72 and measures 7040 yards. Hitting for distance isn’t really the point here, so much as keeping the ball in play. The fairways are narrow, and sometimes hug the coast and cliffs. The rough is thick enough to eat an errant ball. And the greens are among the smallest and most dangerous on the PGA Tour.
A couple of the course’s more famous holes illustrate that combination of scenic and challenging: the par-3 seventh and the par-5 18th.
The seventh hole is the shortest on the PGA Tour, at 106 yards. And while it played as one of the course’s easier holes at the 2010 U.S. Open, it isn’t necessarily easier. The seventh plays downhill to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific, with wind swirling around the postage stamp of a green.
The 18th hole, another of the course’s most recognizable, stretches 543 yards along Stillwater Cove. With a dogleg left around water, players may to err to the right. But starting out safe poses other problems later, including trees along the right side. Keeping the ball closer to the water is much more dangerous, but could reward a player willing to take the risk. Par-5s tend to offer up scoring opportunities to the world’s best golfers, but the 18th at Pebble Beach isn’t one of those par-5s.
Who are the favorites at the U.S. Open this week?
Dustin Johnson (8-1)
Ranked second in the world, Johnson placed second at the season’s first two majors. He’s logged multiple other top-10 finishes in 2019 and has traditionally played well at Pebble Beach. Johnson also ranks among the best tee-to-green players on the PGA Tour.
Brooks Koepka (8-1)
The world’s best player at the moment, Koepka is also the defending U.S. Open champion two times over. He’s a monster at the majors, having won four of the last eight, with his most recent win at the PGA Championship last month. His only Pebble Beach appearance happened in 2016, when managed a T8.
Tiger Woods (10-1)
Tiger holds steady at number five in the world rankings but, more importantly, brings with him the belief that he can win. That’s the extra confidence that comes with another Masters win. Woods won the historic 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by an absurd 15 strokes and checked in at T4 in 2010. He sneaked into the top 10 at the Memorial, his last tournament. And, of course, he’s Tiger Woods.
Rory McIlroy (10-1)
McIlroy, ranked third in the world, might be the most consistent player on the PGA Tour right now. He’s coming off a win at the RBC Canadian Open, and has 10 top-10 finishes in 2019. He’s also a strong tee-to-green player, which will serve him well at Pebble Beach. At least it should. McIlroy missed the cut in his last outing at the course.