PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Gary Woodland has won exactly one major — the 2019 U.S. Open — but you wouldn’t know it from the way he played on Sunday. Woodland held off a charge from Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose — combined majors: 5 — and clinched the victory at one of golf’s iconic venues.
Coming into the week, the USGA faced police interrogation levels of scrutiny from players following four straight U.S. Opens that ran the gamut from farcical to disastrous. Players as notable as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson rumbled that the USGA shouldn’t try messing too much with an iconic course like Pebble Beach.
Judging from the scores on Thursday, the USGA let Pebble be Pebble. A thick layer of fog shrouded the course for most of the weekend, keeping temperatures at around 60 degrees all week. That kept winds down and greens soft, and players up and down the leaderboard took advantage.
Rose, who won a U.S. Open six years ago at Merion, took charge of the field with three birdies in his final three holes on Thursday to card a 65. It was the lowest score at a U.S. Open since Woods finished with a similar number in 2000 … but it was only good enough to leave Rose a stroke ahead of the field.
The marine layer held on for Friday, low and thick over the tournament, giving Pebble Beach a downright British Open feel, gray skies, frigid ocean breezes and all. Scores stayed low on the day, with more players finishing under par — 44 — on Friday than Thursday’s 39. Players felt the greens tightened up a bit — just a bit — though the course was still rolling over for a good belly-scratch from the players at the top of the leaderboard.
Rose lost the lead on Friday even though he shot a respectable -1 on the afternoon. Woodland parachuted in from off the coast with a brilliant six-under, bogey-free performance — another 65 — that included a 50-foot putt on the ninth, his final hole of the day, and claimed the lead by two strokes.
Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson gave a touch of hope to everyone who’s waiting for Phil to complete that final jewel of the career Grand Slam. He played another classic up-and-down Phil round, at one point drawing to within two strokes of the lead. Woods couldn’t keep his irons under control and bogeyed the final two holes of the day to surrender whatever good fortune he’d amassed during the week.
Moving Day didn’t really involve a whole lot of moving, as it turned out. Woodland held onto the lead with some clutch putting on Pebble Beach’s second nine, but Rose narrowed the gap back to a single stroke.
This was where Woodland’s spine started to show. He had an array of major champions on his heels — not just Rose, but Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett and Rory McIlroy, among others — and yet Woodland drove, chipped and putted like he was practicing. He entered Sunday with a one-stroke lead, the first time he’d ever enjoyed that spot in a major, at 11 under par.
And it was right around this time that people began noticing, that, hey, Brooks Koepka is still hanging around.
Koepka, who’d won the past two U.S. Opens as well as the past two PGA Championships, stormed into Sunday swinging a battle axe. He birdied four of the first five holes, and the cheers from his birdies washed back to the pairing of Rose and Woodland — who most definitely knew what those cheers signaled.
Even so, neither Rose or Woodland flinched. Rose birdied the first to draw even with Woodland, but just as quickly gave it back on the second hole. Woodland stretched the lead with birdies on the second and third holes, and if the moment was too big for him, he was doing a remarkable job of hiding it.
Pebble Beach’s opening seven holes are where the best players can go low, and the three leaders used those holes to throw absolute haymakers. The players combined for eight birdies across those opening seven holes, meaning that by the time the players walked off the postcard-quality 7th, exactly nothing had been settled.
Other players managed to eject themselves without threatening Woodland. McIlroy hit his tee shot into waist-deep fescue along the side of the second hole, and wasn’t able to advance the ball. Oosthuizen lurked but pitched off the edge of the leaderboard with a double-bogey on the 10th.
Down the card, Xander Schauffele, Stenson, Jon Rahm and Adam Scott all worked their way upward with red-dotted scorecards that, under other U.S. Open circumstances, would have been worthy of celebration. But with Woodland, Koepka and Rose barely wobbling, there wasn’t any opportunity for anyone in single digits to close the gap.
By the time the leaders hit the turn, this was a three-horse race, with Woodland holding a two-stroke lead over Koepka and Rose. Koepka birdied the 11th to draw within a stroke, but his par putt on the 12th stopped 10 inches short of the hole.
And then things got really interesting. Behind Koepka, both Rose and Woodland bogeyed the 12th. Koepka put his drive on 14 wide of the fairway bunkers, and moments later, Woodland nearly brained a fan standing 40 yards right of the 13th fairway. Rose put his approach on 13 into a greenside bunker.
Woodland and Koepka got away with their wayward shots, escaping with pars. Rose wasn’t quite so fortunate, sliding a second shot on 13 past the cup for his second straight bogey. That dropped him three shots behind Woodland’s -11 and two shots behind Koepka.
On the 14th hole, Woodland played what could have been a make-or-break shot — a 3-wood second-shot approach that that needed to carry more than 250 yards to clear the front bunker. It did by all of about eight inches. A chip and a putt later, birdie and a two-shot lead.
That singular shot is where this tournament turned squarely in Woodland’s favor. It doubled his lead over Koepka to two shots and, more importantly, lightened his own load while planting an anvil on Koepka’s back.
When Koepka arrived at 18, only an eagle would do, and to that point of the day none had been carded. He gave his second a ride, but immediately ordered his ball to sit. It didn’t, trickling over the green, and at that moment Koepka knew a three-peat, something that has only been done once in U.S. Open history (more than 100 years ago), wasn’t going to happen.
Woodland, who carded a total of four bogies the entire tournament, needed only to par out, which he did — well, save the bomb birdie he dropped on 18 — but not without a little drama at 17, where he actually had to chip a shot from the green in order to get it to the hole.
In his eight previous appearances at the U.S. Open, the 35-year-old Woodland had never finished better than 23rd. Now, he’s a U.S. Open champion.