U.S. Open 2019: Gary Woodland simply would not crack, plus nine takeaways from Pebble Beach
The end to an unreal tournament saw Woodland refusing to blink when many others would
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- A conversation on repeat in the media center and throughout the towns of Carmel-by-the-Sea and Monterey at this 119th United States Open went something like this: The top of the leaderboard will crack; we are sure of that. The only question is which one or both will fall. Justin Rose and Gary Woodland both played in the final pairing on Saturday and Sunday, and it seemed impossible that both of them would stay above the other 154 golfers in the field for 36 straight holes.
In the end, it was Rose who fired a 74 on Sunday at Pebble Beach and Woodland who stood up to the coiled-up biceps of Brooks Koepka and stared him into the horizon en route to his first major championship. Woodland had every opportunity to crack and to fade away at this tournament, yet he never took any of them.
He could have cracked after a poor ball-striking Round 1. He could have cracked after sleeping on a 65 on Friday to assume the lead. And he could have cracked on the weekend because the weekend is when you're supposed to crack at a U.S. Open. He never did, though. He refused. Once he got to 10 under on the fourth hole on Saturday, he never dipped below the number that would have at least gotten him to a playoff on Sunday evening.
And while it's helpful to have, ahem, the intestinal fortitude necessary to take on the USGA and a U.S. Open course, it's probably more necessary for taking on Koepka. You have to be a man to beat back Pebble Beach. You have to be a monster to slay Koepka in his natural habitat.
"Brooks, he's unbelievable. He lives for this moment," said Woodland. "And obviously what he's done the last couple of years is phenomenal. So it was nice. I told him when I got done he needs to slow down a little bit. All day he was knocking on the door. I was proud of myself to stay in my moment and control myself and not get too worried about what he was doing."
Woodland could have cracked on the obvious three-shot 14th hole on Sunday, but he went for it -- literally and figuratively -- from 263 yards away and made birdie. He could have cracked when he had to chip from on the green on the 17th because there was no clear pathway to the cup. He didn't. He clipped a ball he had to clip perfectly and made a par that broke Brooks' back.
"I think, from a mental standpoint, I was as good as I've ever been," said Woodland. "I never let myself get ahead of myself. I never thought about what would happen if I won, what comes with it. I wanted to execute every shot. I wanted to stay in the moment. I wanted to stay within myself."
The denouement came at the par-5 18th. He could afford to crack then. He had slack in the rope and a two-shot lead. On the closing hole of the 119th U.S. Open, he smartly hit iron, iron, wedge to 30 feet. Even then, though, he stayed present and beat back the champ, burying him once and for all with a thunderous bird. It was a final emphatic statement in a weekend full of them.
A general public clamoring for Dustin Johnson, Tiger Woods or Jordan Spieth might not believe in Gary Woodland or consider him a worthy champion for Pebble Beach. But it doesn't matter because Gary Woodland believed in himself. And while his resume and his career never suggested that he could join Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Woods as U.S. Open champs to win at Pebble Beach, his play on the weekend at this place proved him worthy. That's how these things go. You're not worthy until you show you are, and Woodland did that in every way you possibly could on a dreary but monumental week here at Pebble Beach.
Here are nine other takeaways from this U.S. Open.
1. Rory misses again: After fighting so hard for the first two days, Rory McIlroy played the weekend in even-par 142. The part that's probably worse for him than not really contending is that, when contrasted with Koepka, I'm not sure anybody truly thought he would. Rory doesn't have to lift another finger for the rest of his career, and he'll still be an all-time great. But the last five years have been a fascinating plight for those of us who watch and cover him to the point that we've now arrived where we don't believe he'll get it done at major championships even if we maybe should.
2. More D.J. disappointment: My biggest "wait, what?" of the week was Dustin Johnson shooting only one round under par on the week and not cracking the top 30 on the leaderboard in this field. At a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (of all places!) that is not a thing that should happen. Johnson finished 78th of 79 competitors in putting on the week.
3. The course: It was terrific. Tough but fair. Chances for birdies but also loads of trouble. We shouldn't blame the USGA for the fact that distance is out of control because of equipment (actually we should, but it's a different conversation). We should praise the USGA for letting players play.
"I'm really happy that I had this chance, this opportunity this week," said Phil Mickelson, who has not traditionally been a USGA stan. "I've got to ... hand it to the USGA for doing a great setup. It's the best I've ever seen. And it's identifying the best players. It's making the players the story."
The most compelling idea I've seen about the U.S. Open itself this week is for the USGA to simply change par. Change Pebble Beach to a par-69 because that's how it actually plays. And the USGA gets to remove itself from the corner it's been painted into. The crux: Golf fans want a "tough" U.S. Open, but to do that the USGA has to trick up courses beyond belief and the players hate them. The solution: Either spend millions lengthening courses and making them unplayable for 99 percent of humans ... or change par.
4. The Cat: I genuinely thought Tiger Woods was going to contend this week. He just wasn't sharp from the opening gun, though, and the primary culprit he noted was that he often left himself in positions where he couldn't score. He wasn't quite as precise as you need to be approaching these dinner plate-sized greens. On a personal level, watching Tiger plays holes Nos. 4-8 at Pebble Beach on Friday afternoon with the Pacific Ocean whipping against the land we both stood on was as cool as this job gets.
5. Phil's last stand: Well, that's it. Mickelson has one more chance at the career grand slam (according to him). He was never going to contend for or win this one (or next one, to be honest), but things did get a little jumpy in the media center when Lefty started flirting with getting to 3 or 4 under on Friday. It never really advanced past that, but for an hour or maybe two the idea that Mickelson could nestle himself among the leaders on the weekend was alive. It wasn't much -- it often isn't with Mickelson -- but that rarely matters when he's involved. All he needs is all we need: A sliver of hope and a modicum of opportunity.
6. Spieth and Greller: Since everybody has a take about the Jordan Spieth-Micahel Greller relationship, here's mine. I don't think there's anything nefarious going on. I don't think Greller is on the brink of being fired. I don't think they're on the outs. I simply think this is how Spieth processes his golf. He hoots and hollers and yelps and unfolds his brain from the inside out, and this is what we're left with. I think it's probably just standard operating procedure for Spieth and whoever his caddie happens to be, but that it's not likely a sign that Greller has high-fived the Golden Child for the final time.
7. Low amateur: Always a fun race, and this year it came down to Brandon Wu (Stanford), Viktor Hovland (Oklahoma State), Chandler Eaton (Duke) and Michael Thorbjornsen (HS). In the end, Hovland shot the third-best round of the day on Sunday with a 67 and clipped -- of all people -- Nicklaus with. He's now a pro, and he played like one all week. Also, how about this top 10 in strokes gained off the tee.
8. Pebble is so great: This place is like Disneyland. Is it overrated and overrun like the tourist destination it has become? Sure, but that doesn't mean it's not also awesome. This was my first trip to Carmel, Monterey and the house that Samuel Morse built, and I could not have fallen harder. My colleague Sean Martin has been jabbing me all week about when I'm moving out here full time. My answer: Hopefully by the next U.S. Open here in 2027.
9. What a great major stretch: Dating back to the beginning of 2014, here are your major champions in order.
- Bubba Watson
- Martin Kaymer
- Rory McIlroy
- Rory McIlroy
- Jordan Spieth
- Jordan Spieth
- Zach Johnson
- Jason Day
- Danny Willett
- Dustin Johnson
- Henrik Stenson
- Jimmy Walker
- Sergio Garcia
- Brooks Koepka
- Jordan Spieth
- Justin Thomas
- Patrick Reed
- Brooks Koepka
- Francesco Molinari
- Brooks Koepka
- Tiger Woods
- Brooks Koepka
- Gary Woodland
There are maybe 2-3 fluke winners in there, but the rest are either current greats or all-time greats. It's emblematic of the era of golf we're in on a broader level. The sport has never been more competitive or better with more easy-to-love (or hate!) stars and superstars. Royal Portrush is just 31 days away.
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