U.S. Open 2019: Destiny awaits at Pebble Beach, where every contender is playing for something different
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The final round of the 119th United States Open is upon us, and everyone is playing for something different at the top of the leaderboard. Gary Woodland is trying to elevate himself from an extravagantly talented tease to a player who has what it takes to win the big one. Justin Rose can punch his ticket to the Hall of Fame. Brooks Koepka is on the verge of even more history. Matt Kuchar can continue his ongoing image reclamation, Chez Reavie has a chance to join the pantheon of Fleckian underdogs, Louis Oosthuizen would validate his long-ago Open Championship, and Rory McIlroy has the opportunity to once again be the player he was always meant to be.
Awaiting them is the most democratic golf course in the rota of American’s national championship. The kinder, gentler (and more cowed?) USGA has presented a course that is doling out less punishment and providing more highlights, setting the stage for a potentially wild final round. “I think the U.S. Opens over the last few years have been primarily bomber’s paradises,” says 2016 Masters champ Danny Willett, who is lurking in 9th place, seven shots off of Woodland’s lead. “I think this golf course just kind of evens out the field in that way.You play good golf, there’s a good score out there. You hit it off line with this rough, bogey is pretty easy to come by. Doesn’t really favor anybody in particular. At the end of this week you’re going to get the best golfer winning, which is the way it should be.”
To this point Woodland has been demonstrably the best golfer. After opening 68-65 (a two-round record for a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach) he carried the burden, and opportunity, of a two-stroke lead heading into the third round. It was a similar position as at last year’s PGA Championship; on the opening hole of that fateful Saturday round, Woodland laid up off the tee, his playing partner Koepka smashed a driver about 100 yards past him, and that set the tone for the rest of the day, as Woodland got run over by the eventual champ. This time around, Woodland came out swinging, birdieing Nos. 4 and 6 to reach -11, one stroke off Tiger Woods’s iconic winning score in 2000 (when the golf course was much more firm and fiery.)
Woodland, 35, has always had a presence — thick shoulders, jock swagger, ferocious clubhead speed. It has long been one of the Tour’s biggest mysteries why the former college basketball player has won only three times. Recent work with Pete Cowen — the short-game whisperer to many Euro tour stars — has infused Woodland with a new confidence on and around the greens, but on Saturday’s back nine he accessed the kind of grit that can turn a contender into a champion. On the 12th hole, Woodland drew a nasty lie on the edge of a greenside bunker. He gouged the shot out sideways and then drained a 30-footer to save par. He made a mess of the par-5 14th hole but then redeemed himself with a curling 43-footer to salvage another unlikely par. (Woodland has made only two bogeys all week, fewest in the field.) His 69 gives him the third-lowest 54-hole total (202) in U.S. Open history.
“I have a short game now I can rely on,” Woodland says. “I don’t have to focus only on ball-striking.”
Woodland came into Pebble ranked 150th on Tour in strokes gained putting. After Saturday’s hijinks, and some bombs the day before, he ranks first. Can he will the ball into the hole on Sunday, with the Open hanging in the balance? That is the ultimate question for a player with all the physical tools. “I don’t need to change anything,” Woodland said, looking ahead to Sunday. “It’s more of enjoying the moment. I mean, this is what we play for. This is what I’ve worked so hard for.”
Woodland figures to be pushed to the brink by Rose, who birdied four of the last 11 holes during an adventurous 68 that leaves him just one shot back. Rose’s ballstriking was shaky over the first two rounds but he was saved by a molten putter. On Saturday he was pleased to hit more “quality shots.” He add an ominous note for the competition: “It’s moving in the right direction.” The precise Englishman conquered Merion, at the 2013 U.S. Open, and turned in a golden performance at the Rio Games, but he needs one more biggee to cement his standing in the game. After a season of change — new clubs, new caddie, new clothing deal in an attempt to jazz up his image — the fastidious Rose, 38, finally seems comfortable. “I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose,” he said.
Of course, Koepka may still be the man to beat, even though he will begin the final round tied for third, four strokes off the lead. Gunning to become the first three-peat winner of the U.S. Open since Willie Anderson in 1905, Koepka put together a sparkling 68 with nary a bogey. (This, after making only one the day before.) Koepka leads the field in strokes gained approach and was understandably pleased with his pristine round, saying,“It’s probably the best ball-striking week I’ve had.” But he hungers for more: “No bogeys, I think that’s important. I feel like eventually these birdies have to come. I’ve hit so many good putts that just haven’t gone in.”
Koepka said on Saturday evening that he has never felt more confident, and it shows in his gameplan for the final round. “I don’t need to go out and chase,” he says. “I don’t need to do much. Just kind of let it come to you.” Bobby Jones, who won this tournament four times, once said something similar: “You don’t win the Open, it wins you.” Destiny awaits at Pebble Beach. What could be more delicious?
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