US Open 2019: Koepka, Johnson, Woods and McIlroy lead Pebble Beach storylines

US Open 2019: Koepka, Johnson, Woods and McIlroy lead Pebble Beach storylines
Brooks Koepka is the world number one after a stellar two years

While Brooks Koepka is this week seeking a third consecutive US Open title – an unprecedented feat in the modern era – most intrigue at Pebble Beach is likely to be generated by the man he recently deposed as world number one.

That’s because Dustin Johnson has serious history with this iconic venue and the championship it stages this week. While the US Open supplies his only major title, it has also provided a whole load of heartache.

If the sporting cards had fallen differently, we could easily have been discussing ‘DJ’ going for a fourth title in five years, with a tied-second, a third and a tied-fourth to add to his victory in 2016.

It was at this iconic California venue where this trend of under-achievement began.

Back in 2010, the last time the championship was staged on the spectacular Monterey Peninsula course, Johnson was firmly in charge.

Then a callow 25-year-old, he shot 71, 70 and 66 to open a three-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell – but the advantage vanished with a triple-bogey seven on the second hole of the final round.

Johnson tangled with thick rough on the back of a greenside bunker that forced him to play his third shot left handed.

His ball did not escape the long stuff, then he whiffed under it, before missing a tiddler with his sixth shot.

He covered the first four holes in six over. It was a horrible collapse, and he eventually finished eighth with that costly closing 82.

Massively long off the tee, Johnson is a controlled ball striker who has developed brilliant feel with his wedges and a reliable touch on the greens. The questions surround his nerve at key moments.

His US Open history tells us this much. A distant fourth to Martin Kaymer at Pinehurst in 2014, Johnson squandered a wonderful opportunity at Chambers Bay the following year.

The 34-year-old American shared the lead going into the final round and despite three back-nine bogeys, still had a putt to win on the 72nd green. It was from only 12 feet, but the South Carolina slugger took three to get down.

In so doing he cost himself a play-off and handed victory to Jordan Spieth. This made the triumph of 12 months later all the more commendable as Johnson brilliantly claimed his lone major success with victory at Oakmont.

It was not without its dramas. He came from four strokes back despite being penalised a shot after his ball moved on the fifth green.

But this was a supreme conquest, at last fulfilling prodigious potential at the highest level.

Dustin Johnson was in the 2018 US Ryder Cup team with Koepka

Johnson’s title defence at Erin Hills resulted in only his second missed cut in 11 US Opens and his gym buddy Koepka powered to his maiden major title.

Then last year at Shinnecock Hills, Johnson made a fast start with rounds of 69 and 67 on a treacherously hard layout and at halfway, the 2016 champion was four clear at four under, only to shoot a ruinous third-round 77.

It should be said that the United States Golf Association (USGA) had misjudged drying winds that rendered the course that day almost impossible for later starters, in what was yet another example of the governing body messing up the country’s national championship.

But it was another US Open to slip through Johnson’s clutches, with Koepka playing superbly at the weekend to defend his title.

So this week there will be no player with more motivation than Johnson at Pebble Beach. The winner of 22 professional titles worldwide also comes into it having been runner-up to Koepka at last month’s US PGA Championship.

The 29-year-old Floridian has now successfully defended his US Open and PGA crowns and Koepka is patently blessed with the kind of clinical composure that too often seems to evade Johnson on the biggest occasions.

Indeed, when Koepka’s commanding lead looked like evaporating at Bethpage it was an imperious Johnson who was doing the chasing. Yet when the deficit diminished to just a single stroke, it proved the pursuer’s Icarus moment.

Reducing his fellow American’s lead to just one behind with three to play, suddenly his wings melted as he bogeyed the next two holes.

It was typical ‘DJ’ and another near miss… while the champion took a further giant step towards golfing greatness.

Johnson was also second at the Masters and can now boast a grand slam of runner-up finishes in majors. How he responds this week will be fascinating.

This most glamorous venue also plays host to plenty of other enticing storylines, not least the fact that not since 1905 – when Scotland’s Willie Anderson achieved the feat – has anyone won three successive US Opens.

Koepka is threatening to dominate in majors in the manner of Woods

Given Koepka’s current domination on tough American set ups, he is perfectly capable of lifting a fifth major from his last nine starts. That is the sort of success ratio Tiger Woods enjoyed in his pomp.

Now the 15-time major champion arrives at the scene where he produced his greatest golf. Indeed, the quality of Woods’ play in his record-breaking 15-stroke victory in 2000 was the best ever played.

Back then he was 24 years old and collecting the first leg of what became the ‘Tiger Slam’, as he won The Open, US PGA and Masters that followed. It is a delicious prospect that he returns as the reigning Augusta champion.

Phil Mickelson will have another crack at the career grand slam. Could he win his first US Open on his 49th birthday and become the game’s oldest major winner?

Pebble Beach was the scene of his most recent PGA Tour win at the AT&T last February. But it is a different course under US Open conditions and Lefty’s patience for USGA set-ups is wearing thin.

A year ago, he was guilty of hitting a moving ball on the green as his frustration boiled over on that ridiculous Saturday when parts of the course became too fast and firm.

Already we have seen social media posts from Memorial winner Patrick Cantlay demonstrating how dangerously thick the Pebble Beach rough is. There will be a huge premium on accuracy from the tee, which likely counts against Mickelson.

There is pressure everywhere you look. From a UK perspective, Rory McIlroy will want to maintain the brilliance that won him last week’s Canadian Open. However he has missed his last three US Open cuts and needs to ignite his major career.

Similar sentiments apply to Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood, who both possess the qualities of ball-striking and mental resilience required to prosper in this championship. Jon Rahm is another potential European winner.

But no player will be feeling the heat more than Johnson. Too many majors – and especially US Opens – have eluded a man of such rare golfing gifts and he should be well aware of where this trend began.

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