10th June 2019 | Asian Tour

Tour Insider: Week of the U.S. Open Championship

By Olle Nordberg, Former Asian Tour and European Tour professional

The Championship

Founded in 1895 the U.S. Open Championship is the second oldest Major after The Open Championship, and this year’s edition will be the 119th staging of the event.

Prize money for 2019 will be $12.5 million, the biggest purse in any of the four Major Championships.

No Asian player has won the U.S. Open in the in the history of the event. The closest was T.C. Chen of Taiwan who finished tied-second in 1985 at Oakland Hills after leading by three shots going into the last round.

The last first-time player to win the championship was Francis Ouimet (as an amateur) at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts back in 1913.

The Course

Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, California.  Par-71, 7,075 yards.

One of the most iconic golf courses in the world, and possibly the most scenic, Pebble Beach Golf Links has been the venue for scores of tour events and major championships since it opened in 1919.

In addition to playing host to five U.S Opens, it has most notably been the site of the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1929, 1947, 1961, 1999 and 2018, the PGA Championship in 1977, and the AT&T Pro-Am on the PGATOUR from 1947 to present day.

This will be the sixth time that The U.S. Open Championship is played at Pebble Beach, and past champions here include legendary players such as Jack Nicklaus (1972), Tom Watson (1982), Tom Kite (1992), and Tiger Woods (2000).

The last time the U.S. Open was held at Pebble Beach was in 2010 when Graeme McDowell held off Gregory Havret to win by one shot on a total score of even-par 284.

While Augusta has its famous Amen corner (11-13), Pebble as it’s often referred to, has its own stretch of key holes known as the Cliffs of Doom (8-10) perched perilously overlooking the Pacific Ocean and beach below.

It also has what is probably the shortest hole in Major Championship golf, the quirky par-three seventh that played to only 92 yards in the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open.

U.S. Opens are well known for very difficult course set-ups and demand a thorough examination of players’ skills, this year will surely prove no exception.

There is a famous quote from USGA’s Sandy Tatum after “The Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974: “we’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world, we’re simply trying to identify who they are”. This probably says it all about what they are looking for in their National Open.

Deep rough will penalize tee-shots that stray from the fairways by even a few yards, with Cost of Rough measured at just over half-a-shot over-par during the 2010 championship. Accuracy off the tee will be key this week.

As will of course hitting the greens in regulation. Missing greens by the smallest of margins will leave a tough task of saving par for the same reason as above, plus the fact that the greens will most likely be very firm and lightning fast.

The poa annua grass on the greens will also be a big factor. A notoriously difficult putting surface that players will most likely find nowhere near as smooth and true as at the first two Majors this year, especially in late afternoons.

The course will likely be a tale of two nines as it was in 2010. Players will be looking at the outward half as the side where they can make up shots and the back nine where they hang-on to any gains.

Holes one through nine played to an average score of +1.25, while on holes 10 through 18 that number was +2.73. A difference of almost 1.5 strokes.

The difference was even more noticeable if you looked at holes one through seven vs. eight through 18 where the difference was +.56 compared to +3.42.

The average score that year was 74.98 or almost four-over-par.

 

The Favorites

Brooks Koepka (USA)

The winner of the PGA Championship last month at Bethpage Black and tied-second at the Masters Tournament in April, Koepka totally fits the mold for a U.S. Open champion. A no-nonsense player that grinds and goes about his business when others may start to let the sometimes-brutal conditions wear them down.

He has won the Championship the last two years in a row and has a chance to be the first three-peat winner since Willie Anderson in 1903 to 1905, one of only four four-time winners of the U.S. Open (Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus).

Dustin Johnson (USA)

A two-time winner this year capturing the Saudi International and WGC-Mexico Championship, he also finished second at the PGA Championship and tied-second at the Masters Tournament. A Johnson victory would be a big story of redemption this week, not only for the two Major runners-up this year, but also for the last time the event was held at Pebble Beach.

Leading by three going into the final round in 2010, the winner of the 2016 U.S. Open let the tournament slip away from him by shooting 82 in the final round.

Starting round four par, triple, double, bogey he let a host of other players back into the tournament right from the start and eventually finished in a tie for eighth place.

Johnson does have a very good record at Pebble, having won the AT&T Pro-Am in 2009 and 2010 and finished tied-second in 2014 and 2018.

Tiger Woods (USA)

When Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, he did so by the biggest winning margin in U.S. Open history. A total score of 12-under-par was good for a 15-stroke victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez and Ernie Els.

That U.S. Open was also the first leg of the “Tiger Slam”, where he famously won the four Majors in a row although not in the same season. The closest anyone has come to winning the modern Grand Slam of the Masters Tournament, PGA Championship, U.S. Open Championship and The Open Championship in the same calendar year.

Already a three-time winner of the Championship in 2000, 2002 and 2008, this year’s Masters champion has a chance to tie the record for U.S. Opens won (four) and to win his 16th major, two short of Jack Nicklaus all-time-record of 18.

 

The Asian Tour Players

Kiradech Aphibarnrat (THA)

This will be the 2013 Asian Tour Order of Merit champion’s third start in the U.S. Open, and in the 2018 edition at Shinnecock Hills, he was within striking distance of the leading quartet of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger after three rounds.

Teeing off on Sunday afternoon in tied-seventh place and only three shots behind the joint-leaders, a final round of three-over-par 73 meant he finished in 15th place for his best performance in a Major to date.

In his first full season as a PGATOUR member Kiradech has recorded two top-five finishes so far: a tied-third in the WGC-Mexico Championship and a tied-fifth at the AT&T Byron Nelson.

Currently ranked 61st in the FedEx Cup standings, and with over $1.5 Million in prize money, he should have already secured his playing rights for the 2020 PGATOUR season.

 

Justin Harding (RSA)

After a successful rookie season on the Asian tour in 2018 when he won the Bank BRI Indonesia Open and Royal Cup in consecutive events, Harding went on to win the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters on the European Tour early this season. His fifth world-wide win since the start of 2018.

Since then, he has spent most of his time on the PGA TOUR and notably finished tied-12th in his first Masters Tournament appearance to earn an invitation back to Augusta next year.

Harding will be playing in his first U.S. Open this week and should be ready and well rested after a few weeks away from tournament golf.

His performance statistics from the PGA TOUR also speak in his favor as Harding is currently ranked first in Strokes Gained: Putting and fifth in Driving Accuracy. Two categories that will be very important this week at Pebble Beach.

Anirban Lahiri (IND)

The 2015 Asian Tour Order of Merit winner qualified for the championship by finishing second in the sectional qualifier in Columbus, Ohio last week. This will be Lahiri’s third U.S. Open and he will be hoping to redeem his previous two missed cuts in 2015 and 2016.

His best result on the 2019 PGATOUR schedule is a tied-10th in the Mayakoba Golf Classic late last year, but he has shown signs of a return to form with good first-round scores in his last two events.

Marcus Fraser (AUS)

Fraser had his best year on the Asian Tour in 2016 when he won the Maybank Championship and had three other top-10 results. A highlight of that year was also representing Australia in the Rio Olympics where he finished tied-fifth.

Qualifying for this week by finishing tied-third in the sectional qualifier at Walton Heath Golf Club in England, this will be Fraser’s fourth start in a U.S. Open after playing the event in 2007, 2013 and 2015.

He will be hoping to improve on his previous best result which was a tied-45th back in 2007.

Kodai Ichihara (JPN)

A two-time champion in his home country in 2018, Ichihara won the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament and the JGT Championship Mori Building Cup Shishido Hills to finish fourth on the Japan Tour (JGTO) Money Rankings. His best season since turning pro in 2001.

Winning the Japan sectional qualifier earned the 37-year-old his first appearance in a U.S. Open and fourth Major over-all.

Mikumu Horikawa (JPN)

As with his compatriot above, Horikawa had the best season of his career last year when he finished 19th on the Japan Tour Money Rankings and was the runner up to Ichihara at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament.

The U.S. Open will be marking his Major debut after securing a place in the field by grabbing the last spot available in a play-off at the Japan sectional qualifier.

Coming into this week in great form having just captured his first Japan Tour title by winning last week’s JGT Championship Mori Building Cup Shishido Hills by four shots.

Ends.

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