By The Associated Press
The U.S. Open’s return to Pebble Beach coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the golf course with the most famous coastline in American golf. Where Jack Nicklaus said he would go if he had only one more round to play. Where Tiger Woods delivered his greatest display of dominance.
Not even the vivid scenery of the Monterey Peninsula can remove the pressure that accompanies any U.S. Open, though. For this one, there is plenty to go around.
When the USGA announced nine years ago a return to Pebble Beach, officials had no idea just how much history would be at stake for the 119th U.S. Open.
Brooks Koepka can match a record that has stood for more than a century by winning for the third straight time. Phil Mickelson gets perhaps his best chance — maybe his last one — to become only the sixth player with the career Grand Slam. Also feeling the pressure is the USGA to end a bad run of complaints and chaos in the U.S. Open.
“If they can’t redeem themselves at Pebble Beach, then there could be a problem,” said Rory McIlroy, a comment that reflects how players feel about Pebble Beach and how much faith in the USGA has eroded the past few years.
Koepka seems to be the least bothered by the U.S. Open changing its look (Erin Hills) or repeating mistakes (Shinnecock Hills), perhaps because he keeps winning.
“Whatever they’re doing, it’s working for me,” he said.
Go back more than a century to find the last player — the only player — to win the U.S. Open three straight times. Willie Anderson did it from 1903-05, when golf was so young in America that only 78 players showed up at Myopia Hunt outside Boston when he won his third in a row.
Since then, four other players have tried and failed to match Anderson’s mark.
Next up is Koepka, who is on the best run in the majors — he has won four of his last eight — since Woods was at his peak. Adding to the attention on Koepka was his victory last month in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, which looked and played like a U.S. Open. Of the four players who had a chance at three straight U.S. Opens, only Ralph Guldahl in 1939 won the previous major (Masters).
“I know what I’m chasing or trying to accomplish,” Koepka said. “It’s just another golf tournament. You can put some outside pressure on. It’s a major championship. I’ll be up for it, I know that. I enjoy a tough test of golf, and that’s what you’re going to get at a U.S. Open.
“I know the odds are against me to win it,” he said. “You just need to go out and take care of business. And if you don’t, hey, I gave it my all.”
At least he has his name on the silver trophy — twice.
Mickelson would love nothing more than to win just one U.S. Open, the major that has teased him over the last 20 years and now keeps him from his place in history with the career Grand Slam and in the most elite group in golf. Woods, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen are the only players who have won all four majors.
“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.”
This is Mickelson’s fifth crack at completing the slam, though two elements raise the ante at Pebble.
For starters, he turns 49 on Sunday of the U.S. Open and realizes his chances are dwindling. The oldest major champion was Julius Boros, who was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA Championship. The oldest U.S. Open champion was Hale Irwin, who won at Medinah in 1990 at age 45. That was Mickelson’s first U.S. Open. He was low amateur that year, and probably wouldn’t have imagined he would reach 44 titles on the PGA Tour, but not a U.S. Open.
The other factor is Pebble Beach, where Mickelson won in February and tied the record with his fifth title in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. That’s played over two courses (two rounds at Pebble) in cooler, softer conditions than what he can expect next week.
More exclusive company awaits: Woods at Torrey Pines (2008) and Pebble Beach (2000), Nicklaus at Pebble Beach (1972) and Hogan at Riviera (1948) are the only players to win a PGA Tour event and U.S. Open on the same course in the same year.
Most eyeballs are on Woods anyway, especially now, especially here. He is the Masters champion and returns to the scene of the greatest exhibition in major championship history. He won the U.S. Open at Pebble by 15 shots, breaking a major record that had been set in 1862. Woods not only was the first player to finish in double digits under par at a U.S. Open (12 under), he did it on a course where no one else broke par that week.
He missed the cut at the PGA Championship in May and a week later went to Pebble Beach for a practice round, his first time seeing it in seven years. Woods forgot how small the greens were, which makes it difficult in firm conditions. The rough wasn’t grown all the way in.
Then again, Woods isn’t sure what to expect at the U.S. Open lately.
“The Open has changed,” he said. “I thought it was just narrow fairways, hit it in the fairway or hack out, move on. Now there’s chipping areas around the greens. There’s less rough, graduated rough. They try to make the Open different and strategically different.”
The U.S. Open went to new courses at Chambers Bay (which had dead grass on the greens) and Erin Hills (wide fairways and record scoring). Traditional venue Oakmont produced a rules gaffe that forced Dustin Johnson to play the last seven holes without knowing his score. The setup at Shinnecock Hills was so severe in the third round that the last 45 players who teed off didn’t break par.
The identity of Pebble Beach is what Robert Louis Stevenson described as “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The identity of the U.S. Open has long been “the toughest test in golf.” The question about the 119th U.S. Open is whether both can live up to the reputation. Pebble figures to do its part.