When the U.S. Open was over, after Gary Woodland slam-dunked his birdie putt on Pebble Beach’s famous 18th hole, lighting up a gray afternoon, and the silver trophy was on its way to the Tap Room for celebratory nightcaps all around, a quiet peace settled over the Monterey Peninsula.
Thirty-one players had broken par in this U.S. Open with Woodland shooting 13-under par, one stroke better than Tiger Woods had posted in his record-setting victory at Pebble Beach 19 years earlier. And there was no angst.
Woodland’s victory was the finishing touch on a U.S. Open that hit all the right notes, ending a rocky run of national championships staged by the USGA. It was exactly what the U.S. Open needed.
Some will carp that the scores were too low to consider it a proper U.S. Open but they are wrong.
From 2001 through 2010, the combined score of U.S. Open champions was 14-under par, an average winning score of about 1.5-under par. That didn’t happen at Pebble Beach and it didn’t need to happen.
Had it been sunny and warmer as it was in the days before and immediately after the U.S. Open, Pebble Beach would have played firmer and faster with more wind but the familiar June marine layer kept the course soft enough that any player who kept his shots in play had chances to make birdies.
It was fun.
That’s rarely been part of the U.S. Open mantra but this one was fun to watch.
Forcing par to be the standard as the USGA has done in the past has often turned the U.S. Open into a dull grind, a series of working-man pars occasionally interrupted by a bogey or worse. It was often hard to watch. This one wasn’t.
At the end, the names clustered around the top of the leaderboard – Woodland, Koepka, Schauffele, Rahm, Scott, Rose, Stenson, McIlroy – reinforced the goal of identifying the best player for the week.
This U.S. Open still had the ability to push players over the edge. Lucas Bjerregaard tossed his driver into the sea alongside the 18th hole in a momentary meltdown and Patrick Reed gave an impromptu lesson in shaft snapping at the 18th green.
Miss it in the wrong spot and the penalty was swift and potentially harsh. When someone asked Rory McIlroy if Pebble Beach was playing too easy, he responded with, “Come play it yourself.”
The reality is in today’s game, there’s only so much defense against what the players can do, particularly on a course that tipped out at 7,075 yards, without making it unfair. The second hole played as a 523-yard par-4 with bunkers in the fairway and a thick collar of rough running tee to green. Dustin Johnson hit driver-wedge there one day.
“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.” – Phil Mickelson
Is Pebble Beach too short for the modern game? No more so than most other classic layouts. If you’ve forgotten, Erin Hills played more than 7,800 yards in three U.S. Open rounds two years ago and the winning score was 16-under par.
Pebble Beach prompted players to gear down off the tee, with many hitting only five or six drivers per round, but the game is played so aggressively now that it didn’t matter. Woodland, one of the strongest players, didn’t have to hit his driver more than a handful of times each round to deconstruct Pebble Beach.
Professional golfers are almost as good at picking apart course setups as they are with their wedges but they sang from the same songbook at Pebble Beach.
“Pebble is PERFECT and has been such a great set up thus far … Well done @USGA,” Justin Thomas tweeted.
Even Phil Mickelson, one year removed from his Shinnecock Hills outburst, gave the USGA a hug.
“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,” Mickelson said.
“They’ve done a great job.”
The USGA knew what was at stake. John Bodenhamer, who took over from CEO Mike Davis as the course setup man, said as much in the run-up to Pebble Beach.
After years of self-inflicted mistakes and some bad luck, this was the U.S. Open the USGA needed and got right.
The ensuing silence was golden.
Gary Woodland puts an exclamation point on a picture-perfect U.S. Open. Photo: Warren Little, Getty Images
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