The leaders at the USGA aren’t the only ones who want to get it right at this U.S. Open.
Brooks Koepka would like to: He could win his fifth major and become the first person in 114 years to win three U.S. Opens in a row.
Tiger Woods would like to: He could write another chapter in an amazing comeback that culminated with a win at the Masters this year.
Phil Mickelson would like to: Turning 49 on Sunday, he’s in search of a U.S. Open title to complete the career grand slam — and nobody plays better at Pebble Beach, the scene of five of his wins on the PGA Tour.
Pebble Beach. It is, quite possibly, the quintessential U.S. Open venue — its gorgeous seaside setting steeped in history, its list of champions — Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Woods among them — a veritable Mount Rushmore of golf.
To make it anything less than perfect, it seems, would take work.
But the USGA has shown a knack, especially over the last four years, for overrunning the U.S. Open with its own fractured story lines, either through mismanaged course setups (Chambers Bay, Erin Hills, Shinnecock) or rules dust-ups (Dustin Johnson at Oakmont).
There is pressure, they admit, to get it right at one of America’s best courses.
“It is not lost on us that this is an important week, not only for golf, this is an important week for the USGA,” said Mike Davis, the organization’s CEO.
He claims the USGA has been listening — to the players, the media, the fans.
The players, most of them here since Monday for the practice rounds, seem to be keeping an open mind, and appear to like what they are seeing.
“With the weather we have, the USGA should be able to control the golf course the way they want to,” said Jordan Spieth, speaking to the forecast of gentle winds, partly cloudy skies and highs in the 60s.
But in many ways, the USGA is in the same position as Spieth and each of the other 155 players vying for America’s championship: Nobody has proven anything until they tee it up for real Thursday.
Some things to watch at the 119th playing of the U.S. Open:
It’s not unusual for organizers to rave about the condition of a golf course on the eve of a major championship. The praise of Pebble Beach has gone to a new level.
Attribute some of that to the weather.
Sunshine last week and a dry forecast for the U.S. Open have Pebble Beach manicured to near perfection. The rough is ideal, with long blades of grass that fold over making the ball visible, but also grabbing the club to make it difficult to control shots.
Bunkers are framed with thick rough and wispy grass around the edges, giving it a natural look. Fairways are pure. Greens are smooth and not too fast.
“I’ve been coming here since the late 1970s — played college golf here and a lot of amateur golf,” said John Bodenhamer, the senior managing director of USGA championships. “In more than 100 rounds, I’ve never seen this golf course look better, especially the putting greens. It is truly magnificent.”
Wind is the greatest defense of Pebble Beach. During the PGA Tour stop, it’s the easiest of the event’s three courses without wind, the toughest when it blows.
The U.S. Open features thick rough and fairways that are brought in to put a premium on accuracy. That’s true at most U.S. Opens — or used to be. Perhaps the toughest feature of a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is the small greens.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult this week, just due to the fact that the greens are very small,” Jason Day said. “Depending on how they set the greens up with regards to the firmness, that will dictate a lot of what the scores are going to yield.”
Koepka and Mickelson have the most at stake for this U.S. Open.
Most of the attention is on Koepka and his bid to go back-to-back-to-back. Willie Anderson in 1903, 1904 and 1905 is the only other player to win three straight U.S. Open titles.
Mickelson can join the company with which golf fans are more familiar — Woods, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen are the only players to win all four of the modern majors. Mickelson is 0 for 27 in the U.S. Open, the major he lacks for the career Grand Slam.
“You have to look at those guys differently,” Mickelson said. “And if I ever join that crowd — and the only way to do that is to win a U.S. Open — it would redefine my career.”
Westgate Superbook lists Dustin Johnson as the 13-2 favorite going into the U.S. Open, followed by Koepka at 8-1.
Johnson has two victories and two runner-up finishes in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-am, and he was the 54-hole leader the last time the U.S. Open was at Pebble Beach. He won the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and played in the last group at Chambers Bay in 2015 and Shinnecock Hills last year.
Canadian Open winner Rory McIlroy and Woods are next at 10-1, followed by Spieth and Memorial winner Patrick Cantlay at 16-1.