Tour Confidential: Woodland wins, Rory fades and a kinder, gentler U.S. Open setup

June 17, 2019

Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss all things Gary Woodland and the U.S. Open.

Gary Woodland refused to let major-hoarder Brooks Koepka chase him down Sunday at Pebble Beach, carding a two-under 69 to win the U.S. Open by three. What did you learn about Woodland and his game that you didn’t know a week ago?

Sean Zak, associate editor (@sean_zak): We learned that he steps on the gas now. It’s been shared on this site numerous times, but when holding the 36-hole lead at Bellerive, Woodland played a layup iron off the first tee Saturday, comfortably sitting in neutral. Brooks Koepka, from the same group, smashed driver to 60 yards from the pin, flipped a wedge and made birdie, eliminating Woodland’s lead. Today, Woodland played aggressively when the result was in question — think about that macho 3-wood into 14, or any of his vicious hacks from the rough. It kept him one step ahead of Koepka all day long.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor (@jeff_ritter): I certainly wasn’t sure if Woodland was ready to close a major after sleeping on the 54-hole lead. That ain’t easy! I think a more common path for a first-time major-winner is to slip in through the back door on Sunday, but Woodland protected his lead even as Koepka came charging at him. Woodland managed his game beautifully, but he also hit some tough, clutch shots — none bigger than that pitch off the putting surface on 17 to save a key par.

Jess Marksbury, multimedia editor (@jess_marksbury): Totally agree, Jeff! If that expertly-executed pitch on 17 wasn’t proof that Woodland has major game, I don’t know what is. That was such a huge moment and he handled it beautifully. The guy never faltered. He was super-impressive, and never flinched, especially down the stretch — much like his so-called doppelgänger, Brooks.

Josh Sens, contributing writer: Woodland himself talked about his refined new short game. We didn’t know he had that new element in his arsenal. As well as he struck it this week, it was his play around the greens that ultimately made the difference.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer (@AlanShipnuck): So much heart. Brooks has created a Tiger-like aura but even with his monster charge at the start of the round Woodland refused to crack. He’s always had all the tools but now he has belief and know-how (and a better short-game), so look out.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: So much heart, II. On the course, in the press conference, at the Phoenix Open. Just a man and a golfer, not a brand and a showman. Loved what he did and how he did it and how he explained it.

John Wood, PGA Tour caddie for Matt Kuchar: Gary is tough as they come. We play a lot of practice rounds with him and the one thing I think he shares with Koepka is playing without emotion. He doesn’t seem to get too high or too low, or let anything in to bother him. He hits it, finds it, and hits it again. And like everyone above said, the improved short game and confidence from this week puts him on a new level.

Gary Woodland is a major champion for the first time.
Getty Images

Besides Brooks Koepka, the two most accomplished players lurking after 54 holes were Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy. Rose, who started the day one off the lead and, in the final group, shot three over. McIlroy, who started five back, shot one over. Whose day was more disappointing?

Zak: Rory, because Rose didn’t really have his A-game all week. He was scrapping it around and draining putts. Rory made enough birdies in his first 13 holes that would have tied him with Woodland for the lead late on the back nine. It’s a tough standard to hold anyone to (bogey-free play), but Rory quickly played himself out of having a shot. That made it all slightly less fun.

Ritter: Rose was more disappointing because he still had a shot to win with about seven holes left, but he couldn’t come up with a single shot when he needed it. Three bogeys and no birdies on the back nine from a previous U.S. Open champ and world No. 1? Surprising.

Marksbury: I never really felt like Rory had a fighting chance on Sunday, so his round was kind of in my periphery from the beginning. I was totally shocked by the way Rose crumbled, though. After that opening birdie I really thought he would be the man to beat, but 74 is never going to get it done on a major Sunday.

Sens: Expectations were higher for Rory coming into the week. But if we’re talking about Sunday only, Rose’s showing was the bigger disappointment. As scruffy as he game was tee to green, he still had the tournament within his grasp well into the final round. His oil-leak down the stretch wasn’t a complete shock to watch, given that he was mostly holding his day together with gossamer and a putter, but it had to be seriously deflating for him.

Shipnuck: Rose ran out of miracles — he couldn’t keep one-putting forever. How about Rory blowing himself out of it with a ghastly double-bogey on the second hole? He made another double on 16. The guy’s game can be so maddening.

Bamberger: Well, Rose, because he’s in the last group, he’s seeing what the leader is doing and his job is to play better than him. But he was never going to beat Woodland.

Tiger Woods closed with a hot back nine to shoot two under for the week and tie for 24th, but he also made some concerning remarks about his past injuries and how achy he feels when he plays in the cold. What did you make of Woods’ campaign at Pebble, and what, if anything, might it mean for his chances at Portrush?

Zak: Tiger’s play was largely uninspiring after Thursday. He made a bunch of pars Friday afternoon where he could have re-entered the conversation via just a couple birdies. He was never in danger of missing the cut, which is good, but if the temperatures at Portrush are anything like Pebble (I think we can expect this), that creaky back of his will not make things easy. He’s just a good golfer in his forties who kinda needs it all to click if he’s going to contend against the greatest fields.

Ritter: It’s too early to write Tiger off at Portrush just because it’ll be sweater weather, but I think Sean’s right about how things need to line up perfectly for him to contend there. Tiger has proven he can still win big events, but his days of winning anything with his B- or C-game are long gone.

Marksbury: Struggling in the cold is a sobering reality for Tiger. It certainly doesn’t inspire confidence for Portrush, but the course is still such an unknown for many in the field that I will continue to hold out hope for a run at No. 16.

Sens: I expected a better showing from Tiger this week, what with his glossy track record at Pebble. But in retrospect, I don’t think the week revealed much that we didn’t know already. Tiger can still win, but the stars have to align just so. He’s not getting any younger, but the fields keep getting deeper. He doesn’t have the benefit of playing in Hogan’s era. He’s got more than a small handful of guys to beat.

Shipnuck: Can we take a moment to celebrate Tiger’s grit? He looked miserable out there yet roared home with six birdies to salvage his week. That’s a lesson for us all.

Bamberger: The king of grit. The best grinder ever, or since Hogan. But that wasn’t a hot back nine. That was just Tiger playing as he plays.

Tiger Woods stands on a tee box during the final round of the U.S. Open.
Getty Images

While Phil Mickelson called the U.S. Open course setup “perfect,” European Matt Fitzpatrick was among those who wished the U.S. Open was more penal. “I’m just one of those psychos, I wish it’d been set up a little harder,” he said. Who had it right?

Zak: Phil did. I know senior writer Alan Shipnuck was sad that the course didn’t possess the “fire” it could have, but the margins of player pleasure and supreme difficult just don’t overlap easily for the USGA. Had the conditions been drier or windier, the scores would have been closer to even par and it would have been applauded by everyone. So, in sum, the course was set up as it should have been.

Ritter: Fitz was right! This Open was a tad too soft for my liking. Sunday was enjoyable, but there were no big moves up or down the top of the leaderboard, and I think that’s as much a product of the course as the quality of play. Next year I hope the USGA makes players squirm a little more.

Marksbury: I like to judge the Opens by the quality of the leaderboards, and truly, there has been nothing to complain about for quite a while, inclusive of this year.

Sens: Sure, it could have been tougher. Things can always be tougher. But then imagine all the complaining we would have heard. This year’s setup seemed about as close to right as you could get. If you played well, you shot a few under. If you missed a shot, there was a good chance you’d make bogey. Anyone griping too much about this year’s setup is looking hard for a reason to complain.

Shipnuck: The unusually warm weather Monday through Wednesday spooked the USGA and they put too much water on the golf course. That’s understandable, given the drumbeat of criticism from players in the months before. They had to err on the side of caution. Course setups don’t happen in a vacuum  — they’re done by humans, who have emotions and agendas. Bottom line: the players’ p.r. campaign succeeded and they got a course they all thought was “fair” … which is code word for too easy.

Bamberger: The equipment has made the old classic courses obsolete — if you still are devoted to 280. I think the USGA clearly took a page from the R&A, set up a fair course and let the fellas play and it worked. Get used to it, unless the Tour ever comes up with a Tour ball, and that shows no signs of ever happening.

Wood: It was as close to perfect as you can get, and the USGA should get a standing ovation for something they didn’t do. Here’s a little trade secret, one that we don’t let everyone in on … but … (whispering) There was no wind. The forecast all week was 5-10 mph with a couple of gusts of 12 mph.  That made Pebble Beach play easily five shots easier (for the week) than it would have had we had a couple days of 15-20 mph, gusting up to 25. To these guys, 5-10 is nothing. But when Pebble’s winds show up, the course gets much tougher.  Now, I’m sure the USGA saw the forecast, and knew what their planned setup was. I think there’s a possibility that in year’s past the powers that be would have looked at the forecast and said “OK, well, having to protect par, what’s needed here?” And the answer would have been very small greens that would go over the edge and be purple and brown and crispy at week’s end. It would’ve been the only answer, and the winning score would been four under. What I loved is this year is they didn’t feel a need to protect par. They let the conditions dictate the score, without panicking that there were scores in the red. I think it’s their fairest setup in years. It favored no one. It asked tough questions of you, but if you were able to answer then, it REWARDED you. If you weren’t, it PUNISHED you.  There are times in the past where no matter how perfectly you played a shot, it wasn’t going to be rewarded.

The USGA gets a standing ovation from me on this setup, as well as their decision to let the golf course play as it was set up; as it was designed. They didn’t trick up the course. They didn’t hit the panic button and move hole locations to 4% slopes, twist the stimpmeter up to 14, and let the greens strain and die a little just to artificially keep the winning score around par.  

The USGA and its past slip-ups were a major focal point heading into the U.S. Open, but the governing body remained out of the spotlight at Pebble. What letter grade would you hand the USGA for its efforts this week?

Zak: A-. We all know the organization was wary to step on any toes, and the weather didn’t exactly allow them to flex the course’s muscles, so it was a solid job all around. I cannot complain.

Ritter: I’ll give them a B. They managed to avoid major crack-ups, but they could’ve pushed the course a little more on the weekend when it was clear the weather wasn’t going to change. I mean, Woodland just beat Tiger’s 2000 Pebble scoring record by one. One of my friends asked a great question in an email: Why did everyone seem to hate the Erin Hills U.S. Open but love this one? I’m not sure what the answer is, but it makes me wonder if saltwater and sea lions have somewhat skewed our view of major championships.

Marksbury: It’s an A from me. I was thoroughly entertained and the course looked great. Had the wind blown a bit, it could have been a very different story, score-wise. Unfortunately, weather is the one thing we can’t control.

Sens: No rules controversies. No serious grousing from the field. Sure, they could have firmed it up and baked it out a little more, but as others have pointed out, they had to play that cautiously. A-

Shipnuck: B+

Bamberger: A. You don’t want or need to manipulate Pebble Beach. The USGA did so at Merion in 2013 and it was almost beyond recognition. But in terms of regulating equipment changes, they earn an F.

Wood: For this week, A+. They weren’t the story. The story was Pebble Beach and Gary Woodland.

Phil Mickelson, who turned 49 on Sunday, finished four over and tied for 52nd at Pebble, where he had won earlier this year and at a course many expected him to thrive on. The Open heads to Winged Foot next year, where Mickelson infamously lost the 2006 Open. How much cold water does this week throw on his hopes of attaining the elusive career grand slam?

Zak: For Mickelson to win a U.S. Open at this stage in his career, it will be a fluke. That sounds mean, but it’s true. The man would have to play his best golf since Muirfield in ‘13, all the way through the bag, to beat a field of 156 younger, hungry studs. Oh, and while you guys fantasize about a Phil Grand Slam, I’m going to go re-listen to these two sweet podcast episodes from A Pod Unlike Any Other.

Ritter: Phil has had a fantastic career, and he’ll continue to be one of the most popular players on Tour for as long as he’s out there. His burgeoning social-media presence is a blast. I can see him potentially winning a Masters and maybe even another British. I enjoy watching him. But he’s not winning a U.S. Open at 49, or 50-anything. It pains me to say it, but his chase for a career slam is over. The ship has sailed.

Marksbury: You can never say never, right? But my oh my, Winged Foot seems like a much more formidable ask than Pebble this week. I hate to be the naysayer, but in this case … it’s over.

Shipnuck: I think we can all agree Phil will never win a U.S. Open. But, given his ability to summon the unlikely, that means he’s going to win at Winged Foot, right?

Sens: Never say never. But at this point, it seems like his best chance at the career grand slam would be to pull a Monty and start counting senior major titles as majors. The 2021 U.S. Senior Open is in Omaha. Phil will be eligible.

Bamberger: Forty-nine gallons. It now becomes almost impossible to see. But the key word is almost. That’s why they play.