A step-by-step guide to winning the U.S. Open, which begins Thursday at Pebble Beach:
Step No. 1: Don’t hit it into the rough, as Patrick Cantlay demonstrates.
Step No. 2: There is no Step No. 2. Just follow Step No. 1.
That may be overly simplistic, but staying on the fairway will go a long way at Pebble Beach, which features some of the smallest greens on tour and has been subject to the usual USGA manipulations ahead of the U.S. Open. The last time the famed seaside course hosted the tournament, in 2010, winner Graeme McDowell hit only 58 percent of the greens, which DraftKings’ Geoff Ulrich notes is the lowest percentage for a U.S. Open winner in the past nine years.
This will be the sixth U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and the winning scores have ranged from 2 over par (Jack Nicklaus, 1972) to even (McDowell) to Tiger Woods’s absurd 12 under in 2000, a 15-stroke victory that seems unlikely to ever be matched. Much will depend on the weather, and the early-week forecast looks to be fairly benign, with sunny skies and wind only reaching about 10 mph.
Considering the PGA Tour’s annual February stop at Pebble Beach, one would think course history would be easy to track here. But the Pro-Am is split among three courses, and the golfers only play two rounds, at most, at Pebble Beach itself. So we’ll take that aspect of prognostication with a few grains of salt and also rely on some possibly predictive statistics for Pebble Beach, where big hitters won’t necessarily have an edge at the shortest U.S. Open course since Merion in 2013. Recent winners also have come in with good form: Per Ulrich, seven of the past nine champions had recorded at least four top-10s on the season before their U.S. Open victory (there are 35 such golfers this season).
So let’s take a look at a few golfers who could make some noise this weekend. Last month, I did the same exercise for the PGA Championship, and while I failed to pinpoint Brooks Koepka as the winner (why?), I managed to nail the solo second-place finisher (Dustin Johnson), T-3 (Cantlay), T-8 (Rory McIlroy and Gary Woodland) and T-16 (Hideki Matsuyama) while also predicting that Tiger Woods could struggle at Bethpage Black (he did, missing the cut). Let’s see if I can keep it going.
Brooks Koepka (8/1)
I’m going to list Koepka here until he stops winning majors. Considering he has won four of the past eight majors and the previous two U.S. Opens, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon. Only three other players — Willie Anderson (1903-05), Ben Hogan (1950-51) and Curtis Strange (1988-89) — have won consecutive U.S. Opens, with Hogan finishing third in 1952 in his attempt for a third and Strange finishing T-21 in 1990 after a final-round 75 doomed his chances of a three-peat. Koepka doesn’t have a whole lot of history at Pebble Beach — he has only played the Pro-Am once, tying for eighth in 2016 — but he didn’t have any history at Bethpage Black, either, and look what happened at the PGA Championship. And all the stats are there for Koepka (five top-10s this season): He’s 11th in strokes gained: approach, 10th on tour in greens in regulation and T-5 in strokes gained: ball striking.
Dustin Johnson (7/1)
Johnson held a three-stroke lead entering the final round of the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach but quickly imploded on Sunday with a triple bogey at No. 2 and a double at No. 3, ending up five strokes behind McDowell. He has won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice and three other times finished in the top five. If there’s a course on which Johnson (seven top-10s this season) could win his second major, this might be the best candidate.
Tiger Woods (10/1)
Woods followed his missed cut at the PGA Championship with a respectable T-9 at the Memorial, one of his four top-10s this season. He also finished T-4 the last time Pebble Beach hosted the U.S. Open and had that win for the ages in 2000, when he was the only player to finish under par. Woods leads the PGA Tour in greens in regulation and ranks third in strokes gained: ball striking.
Rory McIlroy (10/1)
People were jumping off the McIlroy train after his missed cut at the Memorial, but then he simply ran away from the field at last weekend’s Canadian Open, shooting a final-round 61 to win by seven strokes. The Memorial flameout clearly was just a blip, because McIlroy might be having his best season ever. He’s averaging 2.7 strokes gained per round; the last player who exceeded that number for a full season was Woods in 2009, right at the end of Peak Tiger. McIlroy also has two wins and a tour-high 10 top-10s this season. Could his first major win since 2014 be next? There’s just one caveat: A player has won the week before a major and then won the major only 12 times in 85 years. But there’s also a caveat to the caveat! McIlroy is the most recent player to do it, winning the WGC-Bridgestone the week before his 2014 PGA Championship victory.
Patrick Cantlay (16/1)
Here are Cantlay’s past five results: T-9 (Masters), T-3, MC, T-3 (PGA Championship) and 1, a two-stroke win at the Memorial. Only McIlroy has more top-10s this season than Cantlay’s eight. The 27-year-old seems poised for a breakthrough.
Matt Kuchar (40/1)
A missed cut at Shinnecock Hills last year ended a run of eight straight U.S. Open weekends for Kuchar, a stretch that started with a T-6 at Pebble Beach in 2010. Kuchar, who ranks third in greens in regulation and seventh in strokes gained: ball striking, also was T-12 at the Masters and T-8 at the PGA Championship.
Brandt Snedeker (50/1)
Snedeker has only three top-10s this season but is rounding into form with top-20 finishes in his past three tournaments, including a T-4 at the Canadian Open that included a second-round 60. And while getting to the green has been something of an adventure for him — Snedeker ranks 168th in greens in regulation and 174th in strokes gained: ball striking — he has been strong once he reaches the pin area (T-8 in strokes gained: putting). He also has won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice (although he missed the cut this year). Snedeker also has five top-10 finishes at the U.S. Open, including a T-8 at Pebble Beach in 2010.
Gary Woodland (80/1)
If Woodland can get his putting in order — he ranks 150th in strokes gained there — he could be poised to make a run. He leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained: ball striking, sits 10th in strokes gained: tee to green and ranks 11th in greens in regulation. The form also is there, with seven top-10 finishes this season and top-10s in two of the past three majors (both of them the PGA Championship).
Shane Lowry (80/1)
The Irishman comes in with top-10s in three of his past four events, including a T-8 at the PGA Championship and a T-2 last weekend in Canada. Lowry also has two top-10s at the U.S. Open.
Ian Poulter (125/1)
Throw out the missed cut at the PGA Championship: Poulter simply does not have the length to tackle Bethpage Black. The shorter Pebble Beach should suit his game much better. Poulter hasn’t missed a U.S. Open cut since 2011 and has four top-10s this season, plus a T-12 at the Masters.
Scott Piercy (150/1)
Although he missed the cut at the Canadian Open last weekend, the 40-year-old has quietly put together a pretty impressive season with six top-10s, reaching No. 59 in the World Golf Ranking just in time for the U.S. Open. (The top 60 get an automatic invitation.) Piercy ranks eighth in greens in regulation, T-11 in strokes gained: ball striking and 22nd in driving accuracy. He also has a T-2 on his U.S. Open résumé (2016 at Oakmont).
BUT WHAT ABOUT PHIL MICKELSON? (30/1)
A U.S. Open win after years of torment at the tournament would be quite the story for Lefty, especially considering that Sunday’s final round falls on his 49th birthday. He’s certainly fond of the course, winning the Pro-Am five times (including this year) and notching T-16 and T-4 at the U.S. Opens he played there. But Mickelson’s woeful driving accuracy remains a big issue: He ranks 208th in that statistic, with only one player worse.
Here’s a look at the betting favorites up to 50/1, per Sherman:
Dustin Johnson 7/1
Brooks Koepka 8/1
Tiger Woods 10/1
Rory McIlroy 10/1
Jordan Spieth 16/1
Patrick Cantlay 16/1
Rickie Fowler 20/1
Xander Schauffele 20/1
Justin Rose 25/1
Justin Thomas 25/1
Jon Rahm 25/1
Jason Day 25/1
Adam Scott 25/1
Tommy Fleetwood 30/1
Phil Mickelson 30/1
Francesco Molinari 35/1
Tony Finau 40/1
Hideki Matsuyama 40/1
Matt Kuchar 40/1
Webb Simpson 40/1
Bryson DeChambeau 50/1
Paul Casey 50/1
Brandt Snedeker 50/1