Every major is an enticing occasion. They all carry an allure because the world’s best players are competing for the trophies that mean most to a career. But there are some majors that elevate themselves a notch higher. It might be the way the golfing stars have aligned to provide a compelling storyline or it may simply be the course where the championship is to be played. And for this week’s US Open, it is a combination of both that has me looking forward to it with such eager anticipation.
This has the potential to be a very special one. Let’s start with the venue, the iconic Pebble Beach Links. It does not showcase the greatest eighteen holes, indeed some are pretty prosaic – but there is no more spectacular setting for golf in the United States. Set on cliffs rising above the breakers of the Pacific Ocean, it is a photographer’s dream. It is no secret that along with packing my 5Live microphone, I will have cameras with me on this trip.
The course is a fine test of golf. For the US Open the fairways will be narrow, the rough thick and penal and the greens small and firm – just how it should be for the tournament regarded as the toughest in the game. But Pebble Beach, which will play around the 7,000 yard mark, is not overly long. This will not be a major where length off the tee will be the deciding factor. The ability to find fairways and control second shots will be paramount. Precision not power is the mantra, although raw strength will be a vital commodity to escape the clinging rough and make progress on any hole where accuracy has gone awry. It is a second shot golf course, not dissimilar to Augusta in that regard even though the setup and surrounds could not be more different from the home of the Masters. Patience will be the other key quality. The USGA want to test every aspect of a golfer’s game, including mental fortitude. The champion will have to wait for something good to happen and trust that it will eventually occur. Perhaps the reason I’m so excited to be going back to this glorious portion of the Monterrey Peninsula is because of exactly one of those moments.
A shot that sealed my love affair with the game was played at Pebble back in 1982. Tom Watson chipped in from the rough at the back of the green for birdie on the par-3 seventeenth to deny Jack Nicklaus. Talk about seizing the moment, it was an audacious piece of skill and nerve that was sport at its highest level. There was also the fact that my best mate was the biggest Jack fan and I thought he was a bit of a “glory boy” for so overtly backing the game’s greatest golfer. Watson’s chip therefore carried a personal edge at college the following morning. When I went to Pebble Beach for the first time back in 2010, I swiftly headed to that seventeenth hole. I wanted to frame in my head the shot that has always resonated and it is a sure bet I will head to that spot once again this week. But it is the final hole that also offers a huge sense of anticipation.
The potentially reachable par-5 has the Pacific running all down the left with so much potential scoreboard volatility. As a result, the US Open will not be over until it the final putt has dropped – unless of course there is a runaway leader. But for that to happen someone will have to put together close to the greatest golfing masterclass ever seen. That was the case in 2000 when Tiger Woods won by a record fifteen strokes, finishing at twelve under par. The rest of the field were playing for second place. It proved the first leg in the famous “Tiger Slam” as he went on to win the Open, PGA and Masters to hold all four majors at the same time. And this brings us to the prospect of the stars aligning at this US Open. Woods arrives as the Masters champion having reminded us of his former glories so dramatically at Augusta last April. We could not see another such story, aged 43, this week could we? Well, he has the shotmaking credentials and the mental fortitude, although I wonder about his putting on the potentially bumpy Poa greens.
There are plenty of other plot lines that would make this a most magical of weeks. Brooks Koepka is bidding to become the first man to win the title in three successive years since Willie Anderson in 1995. And he does so off the back of winning the US PGA in magnificent style only last month. How about Phil Mickelson completing the career grand slam on his 49th birthday? He would doing it on the course where he won the AT&T pro-am, his most recent PGA Tour title last February. Or maybe we could celebrate a European win like we did back in 2010 when Graeme McDowell was last man standing after Dustin Johnson’s capitulation. Actually redemption for DJ would be a heck of a story too. But from a European point of view Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm are probably our best bets. Success for Rory McIlroy would be a surprise having missed the cut in his last three US Opens. What is more certain is that we will have a fascinating story to tell during our 5Live and Sports Extra commentaries and with daily updates on The Cut, the BBC golf podcast. I hope you can join us because this should be a very special week.