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Tiger, Rory lead storylines to watch out for at Pebble Beach

Joy Chakravarty

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TigerWoods
Former World No. 1 Tiger Woods returns to the venue of his iconic U.S. Open victory in 2000 following his 15th Major triumph at The Masters recently.

Dubai: Finally, the U.S. Open, almost always in the spotlight because of wrong reasons over the last few years, looks set to be remembered as a proper golf contest.

The United States Golf Association (USGA), which conducts the championship, have taken great pride in their objective of providing the toughest test of golf at the U.S. Open, but have often went overboard in tricking up the golf courses.

In their zealous pursuit, the USGA has let playing conditions get out of hand several times in the past. In the 2004 edition at Shinnecock Hills, the seventh hole became so hard and fast, it had to be watered in between groups. In 2015 at Chambers Bay, the greens were so bad that Henrik Stenson referred to them as ‘broccoli’. 2016 was the year of the Dustin Johnson rules fiasco. And in 2018, there was the unforgettable sight of a frustrated Phil Mickelson running after his putt and hitting his next while the ball was still in motion during the third round.

Those who have already reached the stunning golf course in Monterey County have praised the way it has been set up for this week. India’s Anirban Lahiri, who qualified for the tournament after finishing second in the Sectionals last week at Columbus, quipped: “Doesn’t feel like the US Open! There is nothing to complain about the golf course this year!”

Now that the course is not the centre of attention, let’s focus on the tournament. And it promises to be a cracker with several compelling storylines. Let’s have a look…

Tiger returns to a venue he blitzed in 2000

No talk of a Major tournament these days is complete without Tiger Woods. The 15-time Major champion will be looking for his 16th at Pebble Beach, the place where he set the record books on fire en route to his 2000 triumph.

That year, Woods won by 15 shots! It kickstarted the ‘Tiger Slam’, when he had possession of all four Major titles, winning the Open Championship and PGA Championship in 2000 and the Masters in 2001. He started the week with a 65 and ended with a Sunday 67 for a 12-under par total, virtually lapping the field. Second-placed Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez were at three-over.

However, that was 19 years ago. Woods did win the Masters earlier this year, but he also missed the cut at the PGA Championship last month. He grew up in the area, so is used to the tricky poa annua greens. And his immaculate control over his iron shots will be a huge factor at Pebble.

Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy

McIlroy heads to Pebble in sizzling form

There was some concern about Rory McIlroy when he missed the cut at The Memorial after two fairly average outings at Majors – T21 at the Masters and T8 at the PGA Championship. This, despite the fact that he has a whopping nine top-10s in 11 starts, including a win at the Players Championship.

Any such talks were consigned to the trash bin after a most spectacular victory last week at the RBC Canadian Open, where he shot rounds of 64 and 61 over the weekend to romp home by seven shots.

There is just one issue though. Pebble Beach is not a golf course which can be dominated with the driver, which really has been McIlroy’s most lethal weapon. Will that change his gameplan, or are we in for yet another masterclass of aggressive golf from him?

Brooks Koepka

Koepka goes for a repeat and three-peat

It’s not beyond the realms of imagination, at least not with Brooks Koepka and the kind of form he is in. If Koepka wins on Sunday, it will be his fifth Major title, a third straight US Open and a second straight Major after winning the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black last month.

For the record, no golfer has ever won the US Open three times in a row in modern era (Willie Anderson won in 1903, ’04 and ’05).

Can Koepka do it? Form and his confidence level would suggest so. And then there is also the fact that he was so good getting out of the thick roughs at Bethpage Black. Brawn and brain is always a terrific combination.

Mickelson and his quest for Slam

Every US Open, and not without reason, Phil Mickelson seems to be one of the most engaging stories. The five-time Major champion needs just that one title to complete a career Grand Slam.

Mickelson has finished runner-up six times in the tournament, held every week during his birthday. It’s on Sunday this time, so there really could not be a better gift for himself than the U.S. Open trophy.

No player has won a Major aged 49 (Julius Boros was the oldest, winning the 1968 PGA Championship at 48 years, four months and 18 days), but then Mickelson seems ageless. He actually won at Pebble Beach earlier this year (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am), and that should count for something.

The resurgence of Spieth

It will remain one of golf’s greatest modern-day mysteries that Jordan Spieth, the man who could do no wrong not too long ago, went without a top-10 finish for 43 weeks after the 2018 Open Championship (where he was tied ninth).

The American has the most sublime touch on the greens, but started struggling with the flat club, and that put some pressure on his long game as well.

However, a tied third place at the PGA Championship saw him returning to form with the putter and he has had two further top-10s in two starts after that. This could be the week where everything comes together for Spieth and a fourth Major title is not a wild thought.

Johnson’s chance to get even at Pebble

Dustin Johnson arrived at Pebble Beach as a precocious 26-year-old during the 2010 U.S. Open. He had won the AT&T Pebble Beach twice (2009 and ’10) and was being looked upon as one of the favourites.

DJ did not disappoint, racing to a three-shot lead after the third round at six-under par. But in his quest for a first Major, he collapsed on the final day. An early triple and a double bogey took him out of contention and he wound up with an 82.

Nine years later, he has a chance to get even. Johnson, who severed ties with coach Claude Harmon III after the PGA Championship, knows how to handle the golf course and is in good form. The other motivation is reclaiming his world No1 ranking from Koepka.

Anirban ready to break US Open hoodoo

This is Anirban Lahiri’s third appearance at the U.S. Open—his first two being disappointing missed cuts. The Indian ace, who turns 32 later this month, hasn’t had a good year, but is showing signs of regaining his form of late.

Not only will a good finish in the U.S. Open look good on his resume, he also needs it given his tenuous position in the FedEx Cup. The other issue he’d be facing is that this is his first visit to Pebble Beach, having never played a PGA Tour event there before.

But Lahiri’s irons are becoming hot, and they will be critical on the iconic course which is well known for the small size of its greens.

Joy Chakravarty (@TheJoyofGolf) has been closely involved with Indian golf over the past two decades and is considered one of the leading golf journalists in Asia. He has covered 18 major championships and more than 100 events on various Tours. He was the first journalist from Asia to be inducted into Association of Golf Writers. A seasoned media manager, Joy is currently responsible for media outreach for various golf tournaments organised by the R&A, Augusta National Golf Club and the MENA Tour. When away from the course, Joy is passionate about increasing awareness and raising the profile of Asian players through various media platforms.