Ollie Noonan has three back to lay selections for the big one at Pebble Beach this week.
The 119th edition of the US Open heads back to Pebble Beach Golf Links for this year’s renewal, scene of Tiger Woods’ historic 15 shot win back in 2000. While the golf landscape has changed dramatically in that time, shaped in large part by Tiger and his dominance, the course landscape has not. It is still a shortish (7075 yard) par 71, hewn into the Californian coastline, reliant on wind and natural contouring to create a test that will have the players begging for submission come Sunday.
Whilst many players will have been used to playing the course on a much more genteel, amateur friendly par72 set up during the annual Pebble Beach Pro-Am each January, the superintendents have really let the reigns off this week, resulting in the usual US Open features of narrow fairways surrounded by rough thick enough to lose a ball dropped from just knee height, plus lightning fast greens where tapped 6 footers end up 10 feet past the hole. Factor in the bumpy Poa Annua making things difficult for the late starters and we have a genuinely scary proposition for all that tee it up.
Last time the US Open was hosted at Pebble Beach in 2010, Graeme McDowell triumphed at level par, with the course ranking at the hardest played by the pros on Tour all season. I would expect similar again this year, though the wind currently looks slightly more favourable to the players.
Nonetheless, anyone ending the week in red figures is going to have a good chance of walking away with the title.
What will it take to win?
With the rough up, and the usual videos doing the rounds of players in deep rough two feet off the fairways, expect plenty to trend towards driving accuracy but in reality strokes gained: off-the-tee is by far the most contextualised stat if you are looking to weight play off the tee heavily here. It is, of course, going to be important to drive the ball well but given the width of the fairways, even the most accurate of players is going to be missing the short stuff fairly frequently so I’d prefer to focus on a couple of other metrics as pointers.
For me, Pebble Beach is very much a second shot course given the greens are amongst the smallest anywhere in the world. They measure almost half the average of a normal PGA Tour green size so accuracy with the irons is going to be paramount, especially given the penal nature of the surrounding rough and the protective bunkering featured on a number of holes. As a result, I think focussing on strokes gained: approach and proximity from the rough is a solid starting point from a research perspective.
If one does miss the greens, course management – the ability to get up and down well is always critical in US Open conditions so scrambling is also critical. Everyone is going to make bogeys here but the ability to avoid running up big numbers will be the difference between the contenders and the also-rans.
From a course form perspective, given the very different nature of the setups between the US Open layout and the kinder Pro-Am layout, I am reticent to put too much weight on past performance in the annual event. However, players who have performed well on the West Coast and on Poa Annua greens do have an advantage given the unique nature of those greens.
Assessing the favourites
Looking at the market, we have a strong betting heat led by Major specialist and two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka (10.8), course specialist and world number 2 Dustin Johnson (10.4) and last week’s champion, the resurgent Rory McIlroy (10.4). All three have hugely strong claims, with Brooks seeking his 5th major title in his last nine major starts – attempting to be the first three-peat winner in over 100 years in the process – and DJ and Rory looking to win their second US Open titles this decade.
It’s really impossible to put a line through any of them and dutching the three at roughly 3.5 will appeal to some but it’s pretty unimaginative so not for me. I’d rather look for bigger potential returns elsewhere.
Tiger is next on the list at 14.0 and again, it’s tough to make a case against the reigning Masters champion who owns the all-time major record for strokes won by on this exact course. According to DataGolf, he gets the biggest adjustment in the field for course form, and he trended impressively at the Memorial when running on into 9th place. The one concern is whether playing a few shots out of deep rough will trigger his back injury, which has plagued him so often. He’s currently 203rd on Tour in rough proximity so it may well be that he will have to drive the ball perfectly to win. I’m happy to take a chance on that not happening.
Elsewhere at less than 33.0 we’ve got a host of names including Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas. There are cases to be made, and I am sure they will be made by many, for all of them.
Golf is in truly rude health but it doesn’t make it easy as a prognosticator!
Pat at the double
I put up Patrick Cantlay for the PGA Championship and he ended up coming a very creditable 3rd, despite rarely featuring in the TV coverage as Brooks Koepka dominated proceedings. Since then his only outing was a win at the Memorial where he beat the field average by 4.8 strokes per round. This was enough to put it in the 97% percentile for performance strength in all measured events since 2004 according to the afore-mentioned DataGolf.
Prior to the PGA Championship, Cantlay finished 3rd at Harbour Town – another short track where accuracy is vital – and lead the Masters with three holes remaining before finishing 9th.
His game is incredible shape and he’s very quickly transitioning into one of the games true elite, just as his amateur pedigree had signposted.
Cantlay grew up in nearby Long Beach, and has spoken of his comfort levels of Poa Annua previously, so the greens should hold no concerns and his both his long and short games have been outstanding this season as demonstrated by his 10th placed position on the strokes gained: approach stat and PGA Tour leading scrambling performance this season.
At 20.0, he’ll look skinny to some who don’t follow the game as closely but he’s entitled to be even closer to the market-leading trio in my view.
Questionable morals don’t Matt-er
My next best for this week is a man much maligned for his antics this season, not least by myself, Matt Kuchar. The Tour veteran had previously been regarded as an aww-shucks, all American boy type but has quickly been the subject of various self-imposed scandals, first relating to his lack of fair compensation to a local caddy and then to angle shooting attempts recently at the Memorial.
The irony is that this seems to have inspired him to bigger and better things as if the ‘me against the world’ attitude has inspired him to be more single-minded in pursuit of victories.
This has led to a season where he’s already recorded two wins and five further top 10 finishes, including six finishes of T12 of better in his last seven events.
He has long been overdue a major win, his nearest coming when an inspired Jordan Spieth held him off down the stretch at Birkdale in the 2017 Open Championship, and his steady-Eddie game looks tailor made for a US Open test at a short coastal venue. Currently ranking 9th in strokes gained: approach, 22nd in rough proximity and 9th in scrambling, the world number 12 ticks all the boxes I am looking for and at 61.0, he looks very fair value given his season-long exploit.
Grillo to thrill
My final selection is somewhat more speculative but at a US Open, there are always a few at a bigger price liable to sneak into the mix. Emiliano Grillo has been trending very positively for the past six weeks now, continually improving his finishes in the five events he’s played since the Masters, culminating in a T9 at the Memorial. His strokes gained baseline is currently at the highest it’s been at any point in his career, at +1.18 through this season, and this positive trend belies a lack of true high finishes meaning his consistency has flown somewhat under the radar.
The Argentinian currently ranks 12th in strokes gained approach and 21st in strokes gained: off-the-tee but has been let down by his putting for large parts of the season.
I’ve talked previously about putting being subject to more randomness and therefore a good putting week been less predictable. However, he gained strokes putting for the first time in four starts at the Memorial and it could be that this is the catalyst for sustained improvement.
It wouldn’t take a huge amount of improvement for him to contend and at a huge price, I am willing to take the chance.
- Patrick Cantlay, 3 points @ 20.0 (lay 5 points @ 6.0)
- Matt Kuchar, 1 point @ 61.0 (lay 5 points @ 8.0)
- Emiliano Grillo, 1 point @ 341.0 (lay 10 points @ 31.0)
- Emiliano Grillo, 1 point Top 10 finish @ 20.0