It was always going to take a super-human effort to wrestle the US Open trophy from the all-conquering Brooks Koekpa, and so it proved at the 119th US Open held at Pebble Beach Golf Links on the California coast.
In any other year – in fact, every year in the US Open’s history – Koepka’s 10-under-par total would have been a winning score. But he, along with many in the field, didn’t account for Gary Woodland.
Blessed with the similarly power long game as Koepka, but previously without the necessary major-winning finesse on and round the greens, Woodland fired round of 68, 65, 69 and 69 for a 13-under-par total.
Leading by a shot from Justin Rose at the start of the final round, Woodland, who had lost all of the previous seven tournaments that he had led after 54 holes, could easily have crumbled in the face of such stiff competition. But instead, he stuck to his game plan – attacking when the opportunities arose, defending when they didn’t – and played a virtually faultless final 18 holes that was peppered with moments of brilliance.
Arguably the best of those came at the testing par-5 14th when, at a hole where 95% of the field lay up, Woodland battered a 3-wood from 260 yards on to the raised green to set up a simple two-putt birdie. That heroic effort restored a two-shot cushion over Koepka, who came charging out of the blocks on Sunday, bagging birdies of four the first five holes, in what looked like an unstoppable march to his fifth major title in just ten outings.
But just as Justin Rose’s attempt to repeat the heroics of Merion six years ago fell by the wayside, so Woodland rose to the occasion, firing at the pins, holing out confidently, and displaying a lightness of touch that hadn’t previously been his trademark.
The shot that won the title was probably the exquisite chip he played on the par-three 17th, when his tee shot to the hour-glass shaped green left him with no direct route to the pin with a putter. Chipping off the putting surface, he almost holed out with a lofted wedge and the resulting par left him with a two-shot cshion as he walked to the 18thtee.
An iron for safety off the last, followed by fairway wood and a wedge on, left Woodland with three putts from 30 feet to claim his first major title. The 35-year-old from Kansas needed only one, with his ball finding its way unerringly to the bottom of the cup to jubilant scenes around Pebble Beach’s iconic closing hole. A home-grown winner is always popular at the US Open, even if it wasn’t the one that fans most expected.
Koepka’s bid to become only the second player to win three US Opens on the bounce came unstuck on Pebble’s hugely testing back nine. With a bogey at 12, he was ‘only’ able to par his way in and had to settle for a top-two finish for fifth time out of the last six majors.
Rose finally wilted under the pressure of his errant iron play, and despite some major heroics around the greens in the opening three rounds, his luck run out on Sunday and he fell away with a closing 74 to finish tied third with Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm and Chez Reavie, with Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott a shot back on six under and tied for seventh.
Rory McIlroy’s hopes of ending his major drought came unstuck as early as the second hole on Sunday, with a double-bogey six effectively stopping his run in its tracks. Six birdies in the round were offset by three bogeys and two doubles, all of which added up to an untidy 72, a tied ninth finish, and another disappointing Major weekend for the Northern Irishman.
Beyond Rose’s fine effort, fellow Englishmen Matt Fitzpatrick, Danny Willett and Matt Wallace all enjoyed a solid week’s work, tieing for 12th with Norway’s Viktor Hovland, who won the low amateur prize in his final event as an amateur. Graeme McDowell, returning to the scene of his finest hour in 2010, rekindled some of the old magic to finish tied 16th on three under, a shot ahead of a host of players, including Tiger Woods, whose frailities with the putter found him wanting at the scene of one of his finest hours all the way back in 2000.
But this year’s plaudits – and the big prize – go to Gary Woodland, a former professional basketball player who now seems to be pretty good at golf.