Brooks Koepka is understandably the favourite for the U.S. Open, as he seeks to win the tournament for a third year in succession.
Koepka also claimed a second consecutive US PGA Championship crown at Bethpage Black last month, giving him a tally of four majors in the last 24 months.
However, several other marquee names come into the third major of 2019 in good form, making it tricky to pick a winner at Pebble Beach.
Can Rory McIlroy follow his record-breaking performance in Canada with another masterpiece? Can Phil Mickelson finally tame the U.S. Open and complete his collection? And, possibly most intriguing of all, can Tiger Woods continue his incredible comeback with another triumph?
To help us answer these questions, we have enlisted the help of Justin Ray, Head of Content for the golf analytics company 15th Club.
Aside from its breathtaking views, Pebble Beach is a relatively short course known for its miniscule greens. So it does not matter if you can hit a golf ball a country mile if you cannot dial in your second shot and land it on putting surfaces barely big enough to park a car on.
"It's virtually impossible to win a U.S. Open without being among the field leaders in greens in regulation," Ray told Omnisport, mentioning the often brutally difficult set-ups used by the USGA for this event.
"Each of the last four winners were in the top five that week in greens hit, and the average rank in greens hit for the last 20 champions is about 7.0. Winners typically hit 13 percent more greens in regulation than the field average."
|Year||U.S. Open champion||GIR %||Tournament rank|
"That mirrors trends of Pebble Beach Pro-Am winners in recent years, too," Ray added. "Each of the previous eight winners of that tournament were ranked in the top 10 in the field in greens in regulation.
"Iron play is always significant in championship golf, but that trend should be exacerbated a bit at Pebble Beach."
Patrick Cantlay posted a video on Instagram last week showing just how much trouble a player can find himself in if his approach shots lands off the greens.
So, which players should be able to tame these greens and stay out of the thick stuff? You may like the name at the top of this list of leaders for 2019.
|5||Charles Howell III||72.0|
Like we said earlier, the most important club in a golfer's bag at this tournament, and especially at Pebble Beach, is not the driver.
"Rough is almost always penalising at the U.S. Open, but driving accuracy numbers have not been a harbinger of victory in recent years," Ray said. "The driving accuracy rank of the last 12 U.S. Open winners is about 29. None of the last eight AT&T Pro-Am winners at Pebble Beach were in the top 10 that week in driving accuracy, either. It's no coincidence that Phil Mickelson – who has never been one to show restraint off the tee – has won five times at Pebble."
Not that we doubted him, but Ray's research is sound. Check out the driving accuracy for the last four U.S. Open winners referenced above:
|Year||U.S. Open champion||Driving accuracy %||Tournament rank|
This is one those questions where you almost have to take Koepka off the table. Ray mentioned he is 54-under-par in majors since the beginning of 2017 — an absurd 21 shots better than any other player in that span.
But the lurking giant that is Woods, who won the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach by a whopping 15 strokes, may still have the skillset tailor-made for this weekend.
"If I had to pick one for course fit alone - I'm taking Tiger," Ray said. "He's arguably the best iron player on the planet right now - his greens in regulation percentage is the highest it's been entering the U.S. Open since 2008. As we saw at Augusta National - and even to an extent last summer at Carnoustie - master tactician Woods is still a strategic force to be reckoned with."
Where Tiger ranks in 2019
|Stat||PGA Tour rank|
|Greens in regulation||1st|
|Strokes gained: Approach to green||13th|
|Strokes gained: Tee to green||9th|
|Strokes gained: Around the green||8th|
Look out for Cantlay. He deserves to be considered a potential champion after winning the Memorial Tournament and finishing in the top 10 in both the Masters (T-9) and PGA Championship (T-3), according to Ray.
"Three players are a combined double digits under par through the first two majors of the year: Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay," Ray said. "He's second in strokes gained tee to green and scoring average, first in scrambling and first in bogey avoidance.
"His win at Memorial was big, but I think he might have an even bigger breakthrough to come this year."
15th Club describes itself as a "passionate team of golf professionals, data experts and software engineers" that provides comprehensive data for professional golfers, brands and media outlets. You can follow Justin Ray on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JustinRayGolf.
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