June 1, 2019

Five to Watch at Pebble Beach

By: Garrett Johnston

I’ve been chasing the PGA Tour across the country all year long, and I spent a considerable amount of time on the range watching guys hit balls prior to the last major – the 101st PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. Based on what I witnessed in New York, who I’ve seen trend upward and who’s game best fits Pebble Beach, here are five players I believe have a great chance of hoisting the U.S. Open trophy at Pebble Beach.

Xander Schauffele

Schauffele is the on the cusp of something great, and it could culminate in a major championship. He’s posted top sixes in three of the past five majors, including at the Open Championship last year he played in the final group. A lip out birdie on No. 15 could have made all the difference.

Why do I like him at Pebble? Firstly he’s a California native, so he’ll be prepared for some of the unpredictability of poa annua greens. He also played very well at the PGA Championship last month (T16). After the first round I spotted him with his caddie, short game coach Derek Uyeda and fellow San Diegan Charley Hoffman spending an hour post-round on putter alignment. Schauffele seemed pumped and had a lot of energy in the session.

As of print, he was 19th in strokes gained off the tee and only 46th in strokes gained putting – which is an anomaly considering that putting has historically been one of his strengths. If he gets hot with the putter at Pebble, look out.

Charley Hoffman

Hoffman is historically a great opening round player but sometimes struggles to seal the deal on weekends. However, just ask Tiger and Brooks how crucial a good opening round is in a major. I look for Hoffman to continue his trend of getting out of gates well, which should give him a chance at Pebble. He looked confident on the Bethpage practice green at the PGA Championship, spending an hour after his first round on the putting green with caddie Andy Barnes and coach Uyeda.

Tiger Woods

Though he missed the cut in his first start since winning the Masters in May’s PGA Championship, his swing and short game looked great. He also bounced back with a top-10 finish at The Memorial. There’s an effortless rhythm to his short irons and wedge swings that could play well at Pebble. It’s a short course (by U.S. Open standards) measuring right around 7,000 yards. Plus, he’s won a U.S. Open there before. That relaxed tempo on his scoring clubs mixed with his experience at Pebble could be just the formula for major No. 16.

Brandt Snedeker

Snedeker is a sneaky good pick for the U.S. Open this year. Why? Firstly he’s won the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble twice (2013 and ‘15) and his warm-up session at Bethpage (especially his mid and shorter irons) looked great. For a guy who grew up almost 2,000 miles from Pebble’s notoriously small and often bumpy poa annua greens, Snedeker putts them as well as any player on tour.

Tommy Fleetwood

Fleetwood is a big game hunter. Even when he doesn’t finish in the top 10 at a major, as it seems he’s done in every single one the last couple years, he get’s on the first page of the leaderboard at some point throughout the week. He did this at the PGA Championship when he started Thursday morning with one of the early low rounds at 4-under. Koepka would post an 8-under a few hours later, but give Fleetwood credit for staying in the mix in the big ones.

Fleetwood was striping his irons on Bethpage’s range, and he even went straight to the range after his opening 4-under round. His caddie, Ian Finnis, told me Tommy hit eight 4-irons on that opening day at Bethpage. While Pebble won’t play as long, it will reward the precision of a great iron player who can flight the ball at will.