U.S. Open 2019: Is this the Pebble Beach U.S. Open the USGA wanted?
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — On the surface, it all seems so perfect. Pebble Beach looks immaculate. The birdies are flying. The players, who generally enjoy pinning pictures of the USGA on their collective dartboards, seem…happy. Is this the ideal U.S. Open?
Not so fast. The expectations for Pebble and the reality are, so far, not quite aligned. This is a major championship gone too soft — literally. Earlier in the week, course setup chief John Bodenhamer outlined his vision for a perfect wedge shot: “It depends on the wind, obviously. But in my perfect wedge shot you’d see a bounce, bounce, then a little bit of a grab — and then run out four or five feet,” he said, referring to firm, testing greens. “And the best players in the world know they have an advantage when they can be tested in that manner.”
Thursday, that was hardly the case. Short-sided chip shots that are normally dead weren’t dead. Guys were getting up and down from above the hole. Players like Ryan Sullivan were ripping wedges back off greens, fringes, anything, really. There were 17 eagles — a U.S Open record for a single round.
Another thing that Bodenhamer said earlier in the week sticks out: “The ability to hit quality golf shots into a firm greens will really test the players’ ability and separate the best players,” he said. “And those that can do that under U.S. Open pressure will have earned something special.”
That’s clearly not what we have thus far at Pebble Beach — just ask Graeme McDowell, who won here the last go ’round. “There was obviously lots of red on the board early. We were joking with Piercy was five under after 6 that the USGA radios were going off saying, ‘Turn the water off now, you know, enough of this.'”
Rory McIlroy saw it too. “Benign conditions. It’s a very soft start to a U.S. Open,” he said after his round, a smooth 3-under 68. But wait a minute. He didn’t actually think that benign was necessarily bad.
“It’s a good thing, because you’re completely in control of the golf course. They can do whatever they want with it from here…if they want to dial it up and make it a little bit further, they just don’t have to put much water on it tonight and we’ll come out tomorrow and it will play a little bit trickier. From the scores I’m seeing, that’s really what I expect.”
That’s a win for the USGA, an organization that desperately needed a victory after several consecutive years’ worth of U.S. Open criticism. Buoyed by player outreach, and PR appeal, and the massive addition of Jason Gore, who was consulting on pin positions, this was a stride forward. Even Phil Mickelson, the Shinnecock Hockey Player, laid down his weapons and complimented the USGA on “a heck of a job.”
There’s plenty to be delighted about. Former U.S. Open champ Justin Rose leads, and plenty of exciting names are on his heels. One shot back: Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele. Three back: Rory McIlroy and Francesco Molinari. Four back: Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Matt Kuchar, Hideki Matsuyama — oh, and a guy named Brooks Koepka, who’s done some damage in this tournament before. Plus, there’s Tiger Woods under par as well after an opening 70. There are plenty of thoroughbreds right in this thing.
There’s also the possibility and the dream that things do get dialed up. In 2000, the first-round lead at Pebble Beach was held by Tiger Woods at six under. Second was one shot back, Miguel Angel Jimenez at five under. Sound familiar? That year, only one guy (more robot than human) finished under par. Friday’s conditions look similarly benign, but the rough is only getting thicker, the greens are only getting faster, the pressure only getting higher. If scores stay low, so be it.
“The weather is the big unexpected challenge, I think, because it is unpredictable here, where the wind can shift or pick up,” Bodenhamer said. “But overall, we just want it to be the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach as it has always been.”
A point well-taken. The question, then: Is this the U.S. Open the USGA wanted?