U.S. Open 2019: 37 different players in the Pebble Beach field and a compelling reason to root for each of them
Dirty secret: There’s nothing a sports writer covering a live event loves more than a tidy narrative. It makes our lives so easy, and who doesn’t like easy? Take the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday night—I guarantee you that dozens of national writers who fell to their knees in gratitude (metaphorically … maybe) for the simple fact that the St. Louis Blues won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. So simple, so historic, so perfect. It writes itself! If Toronto wins the NBA championship on Thursday night, it will also be its first franchise win, and the first pro hoops title ever for a Canadian team. If the Warriors win, it means they fought back from 3-1 without their star player to reverse the curse from the Cleveland series three years ago. In both cases, writers everywhere will mimic the proverbial Italian chef, kissing their fingers in appreciation of a benevolent universe.
The truth is, there’s pretty much always a decent narrative to be found in team sports. Not so in golf! In every tournament, every week, there are tons of hypothetical winners who are downright boring, and unless you want to go all Palm Beach Post and run a headline like “No-Name Champion” after Keith Mitchell wins your event, you’re going to have to do some painful journalistic stretching to inject meaning into a dud-ish result. With that in mind, and for the purpose of subtly influencing the golf gods, here’s the definitive, occasionally serious list of the 37 most compelling potential champions at Pebble Beach this weekend. These are the guys we should all be rooting for, fans and writers alike. We’ll start with number 37 …
37. Jovan Rebula — Did you know he’s Ernie Els’ nephew?? Based on that, his funky name, and the fact that he was the first South African winner of the British Amateur in more than 50 years, he’s by far the most interesting amateur in the field.
36. Joel Dahmen — It’s time for the obscure fantasy legend to go mainstream!
35. Jon Rahm — Mark Broadie and I figured out last August that Rahm ranks dead last in major performance, when you compare it to “normal” performance. In other words, he’s not the clutchest golfer in the universe, but on the heels of a top-10 finish in the Masters, it would be cool to see the young Spaniard reverse the curse.
34. Scott Piercy — Since he’s leading the actual tournament early on Thursday, it would be a shame not to include him. Here’s the Piercy angle we love: He’s come very close to winning big events before, finishing second at the 2016 U.S. Open and fifth at the ’13 PGA, and putting up two second-place WGC finishes. He can hang with the big boys and, also, he went to a Las Vegas high school called ”Bonanza” (Cubs MVP Kris Bryant is another alum). We hope it was named after the TV show.
33. Martin Kaymer — There are certain players who have to endure really long fallow periods throughout their career, and Kaymer’s latest is going on five years. But he’s started to emerge from a long hibernation, and it’s always fun to watch a former star find his old form.
32. Luke List/Kyle Stanley/Kevin Kisner — A Steady Eddie breakthrough at the big dance? Sure, that’s something we can get behind, albeit semi-reluctantly.
31. Sepp Straka — I don’t know the first thing about him, but I recognize a cool Finnish name when I see one, and he’d be the first winner from his country. (Looks up Sepp Straka on Google.) Like I said, I recognize a cool Austrian name when I see one, and he’d be the first winner from his country.
30. Matt Kuchar — Look, I already hate this storyline, but as a ”redemption” angle for the tipping controversy, it would do its job. It really would.
29. Hideki Matsuyama — It’s wild to me that no Japanese golfer has ever won a men’s major. Time for that to change.
28. Webb Simpson/Keegan Bradley — It’s easy to think of these guys as a little past their prime, with the best moments (a major victory, in each case) behind them. But the truth is, they’ve been playing very well for a couple years, with big wins to their names, and both could break out of that perception prison with another major.
27. Aaron Wise — Koepka mentioned him by name in his U.S. Open presser as a player to watch out for, and the only thing that could add to Koepka’s legend more than winning the thing would be anointing the next champ.
26. Brendon Todd — For the rags-to-riches story, from a guy who fell completely off the map after winning the Byron Nelson in 2014, but kept trying. (And also for the fact that he’s a really nice guy.)
25. Francesco Molinari — With his second major and fifth overall win in two years, we’d have to transition our mindsets from “Hey, this European player we’ve known for a while is having a nice year and won a major!” to “Francesco Molinari is basically Brooks Koepka now, except even better at the Ryder Cup.”
24. Bubba Watson — Just imagine the tears. Tears sell.
23. Brandt Snedeker/Charles Howell III — File this potential result under “Vaguely possible yet utterly unexpected late-career life-changers.”
22. Alex Noren/Rafa Cabrera-Bello/Thomas Pieters/Branden Grace — Very good Europeans who could make what I’m calling the “Molinari Leap.”
21. Daniel Berger/Xander Schauffele/Patrick Cantlay — Very good young Americans who would distinguish themselves from the pack with a win.
20. Kiradech Aphibarnrat — There aren’t many heavy golfers anymore, and I think that’s a shame. We could all rally behind Kiradech, the people’s champ. Have a beer.
19. Jason Dufner — A Duf-Daddy win out of nowhere? What could be better? Crazy thing is, he’s coming off a top-10 at the Memorial, and it’s slightly possible.
18. Sergio Garcia — Sure, I guess. It would definitely be fascinating, and like Kuchar, you’d have the “he’s now redeemed from that time he purposefully destroyed a golf course in Saudi Arabia!” angle.
17. Tommy Fleetwood — I get the sinking feeling that Fleetwood, now 28, is falling into the English Golfer Rut (EGR), in which you start out with great promise, have a brilliant Ryder Cup career, but somehow never win a major or win only one when you should win about five. It’s time for him to push past the limits of his nation.
16. Zach Johnson — I love the angle of “this guy only wins majors at really famous courses.” Imagine winning just three majors in your lifetime, but they come at Augusta National, St. Andrews and Pebble Beach.
15. Justin Thomas — How has he slipped off our radar this much in the space of a single year? It’s time for the wunderkind to reassert himself.
14. Henrik Stenson — He’s just funny as hell.
13. Rickie Fowler — He’s 30 now, and we’ve all kinda stopped believing he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough, haven’t we? Prove us wrong, Rickie!
12. Paul Casey/Ian Poulter/Luke Donald — Are you going to be Lee Westwoods (good Euro player with zero majors) or Sergio Garcias (good Euro player with one very late major)? Time to decide, fellas!
11. Dustin Johnson/Justin Rose/Adam Scott/Jason Day — The “they deserve a second major” club. Because, truly, they deserve a second major.
10. Shane Lowry — A nice guy, an Irishman, and someone who deserves a better U.S. Open legacy than the final round collapse in 2016.
9. Patrick Reed — Look, facts are facts: We all want Patrick Reed on the Ryder Cup team for so many reasons, and after the debacle in Paris and his potshots at Furyk, he might not get a captain’s pick if he needs one in 2020. This would help ensure he qualifies, and that’s good enough for me.
8. Jim Furyk — Hell yes I want Jim Furyk to avenge the Paris Ryder Cup loss as a player.
7. Bryson DeChambeau — We all want to be blinded by science.
6. Graeme McDowell — The funniest, most intelligent man in the sport deserves one last shot at glory. When you consider his recent form and the fact that Pebble takes the driver out of play on a fair number of holes, this is tantalizingly possible.
5. Jordan Spieth — Is there anyone on the planet, besides Patrick Reed, who doesn’t want Spieth back? Along with the resurgence narrative, this would also tie him with Rory and Brooks at four majors.
4. Rory McIlroy — Life is just better when Rory’s winning majors, and now he’s in a bona fide race with Koepka. Speaking of...
3. Brooks Koepka — Personally, I can't stop thinking about Brooks Koepka, to the point that I wrote an entire thing comparing him to a Jeopardy! champion. I could go on for days about how interesting he's become, and how he changes the way we perceive the majors, but let's keep it simple: The last person to win 5 of his last 9 majors in the era of four professional majors—a feat Koepka could accomplish this week—was Tiger Woods. The last person before that was...Tiger Woods. The last person before that was Jack Nicklaus. The last person before that was nobody. So in short, he could accomplish a streak of major dominance that we've only ever seen from two people in the history of modern golf. Not bad!
2. Phil Mickelson — A lifetime of second-place finishes giving way to a victory at age 48, after endless grievances with the USGA, to compete the career slam, by one of the most popular figures in the game? Yes, yes, I think this would be compelling.
1. Tiger Woods — Sorry Phil, but the ultimate needle-mover won’t be out-moved by anyone. Tiger winning is crazy compelling for 3,000 different reasons, which I will list in a different post unless I go crazy first.