U.S. Open 2019: Caddie Confidential—9 questions that unlock the secrets to this year at Pebble Beach
If you want a blunt take, talk to the caddies. It’s a truism wherever golf is played. In advance of this week’s U.S. Open, Golf Digest partnered with The Caddie Network to deliver these Caddie Confidential interviews of four loopers who will be working inside the ropes this week at Pebble Beach. So as to not get them in trouble with their bosses, we’ve assigned them aliases evocative of 17-Mile Drive: Poppy Hills, Spyglass, Spanish Bay and Monterey. The fifth source, Carmel, is not on the PGA Tour but a veteran bagman of Pebble Beach Resorts.
Is there anything that could possibly reveal a weakness in Brooks Koepka?
Spanish Bay: If Brooks was so mentally tough, he’d have a lot more than six career wins. As strong as he played the first 63 holes at Bethpage Black in the PGA, that was a bomber’s paradise. He only had to beat maybe 10 guys to win that tournament. He won’t be able to dominate Pebble Beach with his tee ball; he’s going to have 50 players running him down.
Poppy Hills: He’s calm, he’s confident, he’s tough, he’s playing well and he doesn’t get rattled, perhaps the most important armor for a traditional U.S. Open. That being said, we said the same about Rory McIlroy after his fourth major, and the same about Fred Couples and David Duval after their first (and only). There’s some witchcraft to this game, and only a handful of players in history have outlasted its mysteries. Can Brooks be one? Absolutely. But to say he’s impervious is folly. It shows a lack of respect for the history of this game.
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Spyglass: The only weakness in Brooks’ game is his interest level. Major championships interest him, and he understands that his style of game fits most, if not all, major-championship setups.
Carmel: When he gets wind in his face, especially right to left, there can be a problem finding the fairway. He enjoys that booming cut shot, but often misses left whenever he’s against those winds, which are common at Pebble Beach on the back nine.
What do players always get wrong at Pebble?
Poppy Hills: They leave their approaches above the hole. During the AT&T Pro-Am, that’s fine, but not during a dry U.S. Open. The other mistake is, you miss a six-footer on bumpy, afternoon Poa annua greens, and you think you’re the only person in the field missing them. But it’s happening to everyone. The golfer who shakes it off and stands over his next six-footer with unaffected confidence has a huge advantage.
Spyglass: Distance control. Playing along the ocean at sea level with cooler temperatures and fluctuating wind speed and elevation changes—all this combines to make distance control extremely difficult. Pebble’s small greens expose who can manage it in a hurry.
Spanish Bay: For the most part, Pebble is right in front of you, but the international players who haven’t played the AT&T will be at a slight disadvantage.
Carmel: The ball travels 5 percent less than most sea-level places. Rarely see guys flying greens.
Who is a top player likely to miss the cut?
Spyglass: Bryson DeChambeau hasn’t been on form lately. Missed three of his last four cuts and hasn’t had a top-20 finish since the WGC-Mexico event.
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Poppy Hills: Sergio Garcia. I don’t know if he has the patience to deal with Pebble’s greens. Oh, and he’s missed the cut in his last seven majors.
Spanish Bay: Tough question, but I might say Jon Rahm. Doesn’t drive the ball straight enough. That hurt him at the PGA, where he missed the cut by one.
How about a lesser-name player primed to break out?
Poppy Hills: Erik Van Rooyen. It’s his first U.S. Open, and he’s only played in two majors, last year’s Open at Carnoustie and this year’s PGA at Bethpage. Two brutally difficult golf courses where finished 17th and eighth, respectively.
Monterey: Kyle Stanley has quietly become one of the better ball-strikers out here. Wouldn’t be surprised to see him with a chance to win on Sunday.
Spyglass: Cameron Smith. The Australian can handle tough conditions, and finished fourth at Chambers Bay, the last time the U.S. Open was on the West Coast. He’s got the perfect mental attitude for a U.S. Open.
Spanish Bay: A week ago I would’ve said Patrick Cantlay—he drives it so straight and feels like a U.S. Open player—but after his win at the Memorial you can’t call him a dark horse anymore.
How’s this going to be a different Tiger performance than in 2000?
Spyglass: He’s Tiger Woods, so you can never count him out. Not playing an event going into the PGA hurt him. He played good at Memorial, hitting those same little cuts off the tee he did at Augusta. But I don’t think he wins another major this year. He got lucky at the Masters by everyone making the mistakes they did at No. 12. I couldn’t believe the stupidity from Koepka, Molinari and others. Frankie’s usually mistake-free. You’ll see Tiger in the top 20 at Pebble, but there are too many guys.
Poppy Hills: Nobody’s going to win this event by three strokes, much less 15. Tiger’s performance in 2000 was the greatest this game has ever been played. Remember the movie “The Natural” when Roy Hobbs says, “And then? And then when I walked down the street people would've looked and they would've said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.” Tiger at Pebble in 2000 was the highest quality of golf ever played for four days. Nobody, not Nicklaus, not Hogan, not Bobby Jones or Byron Nelson or Arnie or Player or Watson has ever played golf that perfectly for four days. That was Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile. That was Babe Ruth hitting 60 home runs in a season when other *teams *averaged 50. That was The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper while everyone else sang Be-Bop-a-loo-la. So, that ain’t gonna happen next week.
Does Phil Mickelson have a better chance completing the career grand slam this week or next year at Winged Foot?
Monterey: Pebble sets up better for him. He has proven the ability to hit fairway woods and irons in the fairway on a consistent basis. Pebble’s a second shot golf course, which sets up well for him.
Poppy Hills: It depends on Phil. If he settles for the baby cut driver all week off the tee, he’s one of the best iron players ever, and we all know his short game is almost without peer. If he can do that I think he has a great chance. If he tries for too much off the tee, I don’t know.
Spyglass: I don’t think he’s got much of a chance at either venue. All things being equal, I’ll take a 49-year-old Phil over a 50-year-old Phil.
Not counting yourself, who’s the best caddie in the field this week?
Poppy Hills: Joe LaCava because he’s Joe LaCava. Been in every situation there is in this game and works as hard as anyone. He’s confident, smart, unflappable, funny, speaks truth to power and rather than shrinking from a fight, revels in them.
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Monterey: Bobby Brown, who caddies for Si Woo Kim. Has been around Pebble hundreds of times, which means he has knowledge and experience the rest of us don’t.
Spanish Bay: Aaron Baddeley just qualified so that means Pete Bender will be there. Though tough to say anyone is better than Joe LaCava. He’s calm, not afraid to be wrong and sticks to his guns. While we’re on the topic, I’m surprised Rory McIlroy’s camp hasn’t gotten together to get him a caddie who can read greens. Rory has such strength, but his wedge game isn’t exactly excellent, and he’s not a great putter. I love Harry [Diamond] and he does a decent job, but he’s not the greatest green reader in the world.
Carmel: Bill Harke was a caddie here at Pebble Beach for years. His professional experience on the PGA Tour over the past decade and his deep local knowledge is going to be an extreme asset next week. I believe he’ll be caddieing for Luke List.
Supposing you had a first-time U.S. Open competitor, what special advice would you give him?
Spyglass: Understand that pars in U.S. Opens are very good. Formulate a game plan that will give you the best percentage to make par and avoid the big mistake that will eliminate you from the tournament.
Poppy Hills: Look around and smell the roses. You only get one “first” U.S. Open, and if you’re fortunate enough to have your first be at Pebble Beach, it would be a tragedy to not enjoy the experience no matter how you play. First-timers at a major tend to be exhausted when their tee time on Thursday rolls around. It’s such an amazing experience you want to be out there 10 hours a day, playing, practicing and practicing some more. Despite their occasional attempts to speed up play, the USGA does nothing to police practice round pace of play. Unless you’re the first group off, an 18-hole practice round will take 5½ hours. You’ll be spent by the time you get to 12, frustrated by 14 and angry and exhausted by 18. I’d rather have a player fresh and mostly knowledgeable about the course on Thursday than a player who knew every blade of grass but was running on 1-cylinder.
Monterey: Show up on Sunday and play nine holes each day spending no more than six total hours at the course. Get used to the West Coast time zone and cooler temps.
Spanish Bay: You can’t control anyone in the field, just yourself. You’re in the tournament, so you’re obviously good enough to be here.
Your pick to win?
Monterey: Dustin Johnson. He drove the ball incredibly well at Bethpage and he loves Pebble.
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Spyglass: Dustin Johnson. I feel he has huge motivation from his pal Brooks Koepka to grab more major championships. He’s won here and should be full of confidence coming in.
Poppy Hills: Like Tiger, I'm hoping the USGA makes it old-school, hack-out rough, a half-shot penalty every time you’re in it off the tee. If the rough is playable, then it’ll be a guy who averages 320+ off the tee. But if the rough is thick, it’s a wide-open tournament. You will have to hit fairways, hit greens, be patient, be tough as nails and make six-footers for par on Poa annua greens. That being said, I’ll take the guy who won by 15 here once. Can’t remember his name, but I’m sure you can look it up.