U.S. Open 2019: The 54-hole leaders at Pebble Beach have a problem (hint: it’s not the rough)

June 16, 2019

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland and Justin Rose have a problem.

It’s not Pebble Beach’s tangled rough, or tiny, sloping greens. It’s not the crosswinds blowing off Stillwater Cove. It’s not, God willing, any more runaway golf carts.

No, their problem is Brooks Koepka.

With 18 holes remaining in this 119th U.S. Open, Woodland, at 11 under par, holds a one-shot lead over the 2013 U.S. Open winner, Justin Rose. Behind them, knotted at seven under, is Chez Reavie, Louis Oosthuizen and the great and all-powerful King Koepka. Reavie has played in 16 majors but never finished in the top 10, though all credit to Chez, he did play well at beastly Bethpage a month ago, opening with a gritty 68 and finishing T-14. Oosty has won a major, the Open Championship, but that was nine years ago. The smooth-swinging South African is leading the field in birdies at Pebble this week but in recent major appearances has struggled to put four rounds together; his last top-5 came at the 2017 PGA Championship.

And then there’s Koepka.

What has Sir Brooks done for us lately? Oh, let’s see. He won the 2017 U.S. Open, the 2018 U.S Open, the 2018 PGA Championship and the 2019 PGA Championship. He has the best cumulative scoring average at the majors since 2017; that tally is a staggering 61 under, including his first three rounds here at Pebble, which is 31 strokes better than the total of the next-best player on that list, Rickie Fowler. He has a stout 68.6 fourth-round scoring average in the 2018-19 Tour season (that’s 8th-best on Tour and more than 1.3 strokes better than his first-round scoring average). He’s not impervious to pressure — a few slip-ups on the closing nine at Bethpage proved Koepka is not, in fact, filled with wires and circuit boards — but there’s still no question he’s the most collected player in golf today.

“I feel as confident as ever,” he said Saturday evening after signing for a three-birdie 68. “It’s probably the best ball-striking week I’ve had. Pebble’s greens are so small. I think I only missed one green today, maybe two. To hit as many greens as I have the last two days, the ball-striking is right where I want it.”

Koepka has some other things going for him, too. (1) He had nary a single blemish on his card Saturday. “No bogeys,” he said. “I think that’s important. I feel like eventually these birdies have to come.” Koepka cited two putts in particular — at 8 and 17 — that he felt shoulda-coulda dropped. “About a foot to go, maybe less, they looked like they were right in the middle, and they just die off or bounce off,” he said. Golf’s a funny game, especially when played on poa annua — perhaps those putts will drop for Brooks on Sunday;

(2) The last four U.S. Open winners have come from the next-to-last pairing, which is where Koepka will be positioned Sunday afternoon. That’s no coincidence. If U.S. Open pressure is suffocating, U.S. Open-final-pairing-on-a-Sunday pressure is, well, grab a paper bag and good luck;

(3) Koepka’s playing partner will be the 5-foot-9 Reavie, who won’t exactly have the two-time defending champ quaking in his spikes. Reavie’s average driving distance: 278. Brooks: 309;

(3) Koepka’s thinking about what he needs to Sunday is enlightened. He says he just wants to be within three heading into the final nine and let the chips (or bogeys) fall where they may. Four-stroke leads can come and go in a hurry on Open Sundays (see, DJ, Pebble, 2010; Brooks knows he doesn’t need to press early.“I don’t need to go out and chase. I don’t need to do much,” Koepka said of the challenge that awaits him Sunday. “Just kind of let it come to you”;

(4) He’s come from behind before. In three of his four major victories, Koepka held the lead or a share of the lead after 54 holes. But at Erin Hills, in 2017, he was in the role of pursuer, hunting down Brian Harmon. Koepka shot five under and won by four.

If this proves to be his week (yet again), Koepka will become the first back-to-back-to-back U.S. Open winner since Teddy Roosevelt was in the Oval Office. That was a long time ago — 1905, to be exact, when Scotsman Willie Anderson bounced back from an 81-80 start at Myopia Hunt Club, in Massachusetts, to close 76-77 and hold off his compatriot Alex Smith by two. Anderson’s haul for the three-peat: a princely two hundred American dollars.

This year’s U.S. Open champion will collect a cool $2.25 million. Koepka doesn’t need the the dough; he doesn’t really need the majors, either, at least not like Gary Woodland needs one. The absence of desperation makes Koepka more dangerous still.

In the middle of Koepka’s Saturday-evening press scrum a reporter reminded him that earlier in the week Koepka had said that if other players saw his name lurking on the leaderboard again at this U.S. Open, they’d say, “Not again.”

“Do you think they’re saying that now?” the reporter asked.

Koepka had the perfect answer.

“You can ask them.”