The Monterey Peninsula is filling with USGA officials, media members, volunteer superintendents, pro golfers, and hangers-on. That can mean only one thing: the U.S. Open has returned to Pebble Beach Golf Links. Time for a mailbag.
I put out a call for questions on Twitter, and you, as always, came through in the clutch. Let’s get to it.
How crazy hard is the 2nd hole at Pebble going to play now that it's a par 4 instead of a par 5 😱
— Will Knights (@willknights3) June 4, 2019
Actually, the 2nd hole plays easier as a par 4 than a par 5. Earlier this year, University of Denver professors Ryan Elmore and Andrew Urbaczewski published a paper titled “Loss Aversion in Professional Golf.” The paper zeroed in on when the USGA changed the par of No. 2 at Pebble Beach and No. 9 at Oakmont from 5 to 4.
Ultimately, Elmore and Urbaczewski discovered that assigned par had a significant role in shaping players’ expected and actual scores. After controlling for a number of other factors that influence performance on a certain course, the researchers estimated that professional golfers will score between 0.010 and 0.187 strokes lower on Pebble’s 2nd hole when it is labeled as a par 4 rather than a par 5. Similarly, players will do 0.022 and 0.220 shots better on the “par-4” 9th hole at Oakmont. Elmore and Urbasczewski speculate that the reason for the better scoring is psychological: players appear to be motivated not to lose shots more than they are to gain shots. Read the entire paper here or listen to our podcast with Elmore and Urbaczewski here.
— 🦅 Wentzylvania (@baldjoe) June 4, 2019
Stewart Hagestad’s commitment to his golf game is unbelievable. He’s in the gym before work and grinding at a practice facility almost every day after work. This will be his third consecutive U.S. Open appearance, the first time a modern mid-amateur has done that. This fall he will likely play in his second consecutive Walker Cup. He’s quickly ascending the ranks of the greatest amateur golfers of the modern era. What’s most impressive is that Hagestad has no asterisks; he is and always has been an amateur. The USGA’s reinstatement process has become shameful. More and more ex-tour players are being reinstated as amateurs despite, in some cases, having earned millions of dollars in their pro careers. Hagestad stands in contrast to all of that.
How much of the whining about the US Open setups is justified? Nicklaus and now Brooks both see majors as easier to win because guys talk themselves out of them. Reminds me of the old Schapp book “Massacre at Winged Foot”
— J Lo no not that one (@Jcldmd) June 4, 2019
The U.S. Open’s job is to test execution as well as mental strength. It’s clear from the players’ continual complaining that the USGA is doing the latter. Have a few setups over the years gone a little too far? Yes, but that’s better than refusing to push players, as the PGA Tour does. Here’s what I wrote last year after the supposed debacle at Shinnecock Hills.
The USGA’s setup issues at Shinnecock stem from a larger problem. It has become nearly impossible to test the world’s best players because the equipment has gotten so good. It’s a runaway train that’s transforming golf from a game of skill, thought, and execution into one of pure execution.
The problems are not limited to the low-spin, high-launch solid-core ball. They encompass 460cc driver heads that make it virtually impossible to miss, and driving irons and hybrids that launch the ball high enough to attack tucked flags from long distances. Green reading used to be an art. Now books reveal to players every contour of every putting surface. And TrackMan allows players to optimize every component of their swings. No doubt today’s players are better than ever—but a lot of the credit for that fact must go not just to them but to their tools.
Many of today’s prototypical Tour pros appeared clueless at Shinnecock thanks to changing winds, uneven lies, and vexing green complexes. For them, it seemed a foreign concept to flight a 4-iron into a modest wind from 180 in order to control the spin rather than bashing a 7-iron. Instead of using the ground around the greens, many grabbed their 60-degree and watched helplessly as attempted flops rolled back to their feet. Shinnecock Hills asked a slew of questions of the world’s best players that they rarely see.
Most failed, and it’s not their fault. The week-in, week-out setups on the PGA Tour don’t ask these kinds of questions. To succeed on the PGA Tour, they don’t need a variety of shots, so why learn how to hit them? These subtle skills are the ones that great players of yesteryear had in spades—skills they learned because they didn’t have solid core golf balls, massive driver heads, and books that read perfectly manicured greens for them.
The technology effect has been two-fold. It has made it nearly impossible for the USGA to set up a golf course properly, and it has robbed the game of skill. Combine the two, and the line of a good setup and bad one becomes razor thin. At Shinnecock, the vast majority of players lacked the ability to hit the necessary shots, and their first impulse was to complain.
Instead critiquing themselves, they ripped the nation’s greatest championship test and its setup. Shinnecock has been lengthened nearly 800 yards since its remodeling in 1931 and sees stimpmeter readings of 12-14 as opposed to the 6-7 that it was designed for—all done to combat golf technology and accommodate the companies that profit from it.
So the USGA is in a no-win situation. Go too far and face the wrath of players who expect to be coddled, too soft and face the wrath of viewers who want their once-a-year bloodbath.
There is a solution for the USGA: control the technology, restore skill to the game, and be able to set up a fair test of golf again. Skill and challenge, not long drives, are what make golf the greatest game in the world.
What will Phil have to do great to win?
Drive it great. His lack of accuracy off the tee has been his Achilles heel and the reason he hasn’t won a U.S. Open. Phil is one of the greatest iron players in history, but with the rough up at Pebble, he will need to find the short grass to take advantage of this skill. If he can be in the top third of fairways hit, I can see him contending.
Can Hideki Win?
— joe (@joseph_p7) June 4, 2019
Yes. Great sleeper pick. Winning is hard, but Hideki is sneakily having a splendid year. He ranks third on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green, behind only Rory and Patrick Cantlay, and sixth in SG: Approach. He’s coming off a sixth at Memorial and a T-16 at the PGA Championship. Hideki is one good week on the greens away from a win. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often.
Andy, if you were put in charge of the US Open this year starting today what changes of any would you make to the course to make it challenging (but still fair) for the players and entertaining for us fans to watch?
— Ben👨🏽🍳🏌🏽♂️ (@MrGoodlyCooks) June 10, 2019
No surprises here: I would widen the fairways. Championship golf should test a player’s ability to make decisions and execute. When you narrow the fairways to 25-yard strips, you take away decision-making. The 11th hole is a prime example. If the fairway were double the size, as it usually is, the hole would have more options and strategic interest. We’d see players hit driver and get close to the green, a position that would demand interesting half wedges to a heavily sloped green.
In addition to creating more options, widening the fairways would re-associate the bunker edges with the fairway lines. The fairway bunker shot is one of the most compelling in the game because it allows for the world’s best players to hit spectacular shots. Think of Tiger at last year’s Open Championship or at the 2000 Canadian Open. These are the kinds of memorable shots that rarely happen when thick, hack-out rough is the primary hazard.
Is Pebble Beach worth the amount it costs to play? It really didn’t feel like it to me but to be fair I’ve played a better course (North Berwick) for £10 (Thanks Horry!).
— Pete Couhig (@petecouhig) June 10, 2019
Pebble Beach is a bucket-list place. That said, the green fee and the lodge stay add up to a formidable chunk of change. So my advice depends on your personal situation. If you can afford to play Pebble without worrying about the cost, go. If, however, the expense would weigh on you throughout the experience, you are better off spending a day at Pasatiempo—no resort, no caddie, half the green fee, and one of the best-designed golf courses anywhere.
Will Ernie Else have to revise his 2000 statement about witnessing the greatest US Open performance (Tiger) we have ever seen? Who will he be talking about?
— Jeff Block (@TweeterBlock) June 4, 2019
No. I don’t know if we will ever see a performance like Tiger’s in 2000. A few players are capable of blowing away a field, but by 15 shots at Pebble Beach? Unlikely.
How is the re-designed 14th green at Pebble? Is the front left pin still brutal or did they soften it up too much?
— Brock R🏌️♂️ (@Golfingbrock) June 4, 2019
Everything about the 14th is brutal. It’s a rare true par 5; for almost the entire field, the 14th will be a three-shot hole. The green is fine. Unfortunately, the old one was a victim of modern green speeds. With the narrowed fairways and thick rough, I expect the 14th to play over par—a rarity for a par 5 in pro golf.
Who is your favorite ranked outside the top 10 in the world? @cclear09
This U.S. Open is going to be about accurate driving, superb iron play, and a strong short game (because everyone will miss greens).
Here are a few guys I feel are undervalued and worth a look for bets:
Henrik Stenson – 60 to 1 – Stenson ranks first in SG: Approach and sixth in driving accuracy. That’s decent. He’s also coming off a T-8 in Canada.
Brandt Snedeker – 50 to 1 – Sneds has won at Pebble and has notched three top 20s in a row, including a T-4 at last week’s RBC Canadian Open. Sneds thrives on poa annua greens and finished T-8 at the 2010 U.S. Open.
Kevin Na – 125 to 1 – Don’t look past Na. He’s having a great season. The smaller ballpark will help him; Pebble will be about precision more than power.
Webb Simpson – 60 to 1 – The 2012 U.S. Open champion has been stellar in the majors and the Players the last two years. He hasn’t finished outside the top 20 in any of those events since the beginning of 2018. He won the 2018 Players, and placed T-5 at this year’s Masters and T-10 at last year’s U.S. Open. Simpson feasts on shorter setups, and at just over 7000 yards, Pebble is a perfect fit for Simpson’s steady game.
What are some things you are most looking forward to watching this week? @shop1gallery
There are the obvious ones: Tiger seeking his 16th major, Brooks going for a three-peat, Phil hunting the career slam, etc. But here are two other storylines that might not get as much ink.
Rory McIlroy – He’s having a spectacular year, putting himself in serious contention nearly every tournament except for the majors. Coming off one of the best weekend performances in memory at the Canadian Open, I am excited to see if he can challenge for his first major since 2014.
The Young Guns – It’s no longer just JT and Spieth. The new era of young guns is upon us. This week’s U.S. Open will give us a glimpse of a few of them. Keep an eye on Xander Schauffele and Cameron Champ, and expect at least one player who is playing college golf, or was last year, to make a splash.
I am particularly keen on Collin Morikawa, a recent Cal grad. Morikawa finished T-14 in his pro debut last week and has spent plenty of time on poa. Morikawa gets overshadowed by Oklahoma State standouts Victor Hovland and Matthew Wolff but deserves as much—if not more—hype. He was an All-American every year at Cal and on the first team three of four years. This year he won twice, and his worst finish was 14th at regionals. In 2016, Morikawa finished runner-up in his pro debut, falling in a playoff at the Web.com Tour’s Air Capital Classic. Morikawa clearly has all the skills; he ranked in the top 30 of every SG category at Hamilton.
Most golf junkies will also be familiar with Ben Hogan Award winner Viktor Hovland. Last year, Hovland claimed the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, showing off his length and towering trajectory.
Recent Wake Forest grad Cameron Young is less heralded than Morikawa and Hovland but has as much upside as anyone. After winning twice as a freshman, Young battled wrist injuries his sophomore and junior years. This spring he put it all together, winning three times on the college circuit and medaling at his sectional qualifier in New York, where he was the only player under par. Young will remain an amateur this summer in hopes of playing on the Walker Cup team.
Chun An Yu, arising senior at Arizona State, had a stellar 2019 season, finishing second at his regional, third in NCAAs, and notching wins at the Thunderbird International and the Australian Amateur. Quietly, Yu is putting together one of the best careers in ASU golf history.
I love west coast major championships. What west coast course should get an opportunity to host a US Open or PGA that has been overlooked so far?
— Dan Q (@DanielQuigley5) June 4, 2019
The West Coast is the best coast for golf viewing. We will have championship golf the next two years with the PGA at Harding Park next year, the U.S. Open at Torrey the following, and the 2023 U.S. Open at the North Course at LACC. Right now, most courses capable of hosting a major on the West Coast are booked. The odd man out is Chambers Bay, which I enjoyed in 2015. I hope it gets another chance soon.
Should/will the USGA tee it forward on 4 to entice players to make a decision?
— Carrforthecourse (@Carr4thecourse) June 4, 2019
That would be fun. No. 4 is one of my favorite holes at Pebble. It gets overshadowed by 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 18, but in its current state, it might be more strategically intriguing than those. We should see some variety in how players attack the tee shot. Playing to the right offers a good angle into the tiny green but requires flirting with a cliff. A forward tee on one day would introduce another dimension of decision-making, as it would open up an opportunity to get home in one.
how much will the Boy From Bratislava win by?
— [insert name here] (@b_dimugno) June 5, 2019
One thing I am certain of this week: Rory Sabbatini will be low Slovakian.