PEBBLE BEACH — There are many who believe Aaron Wise has a bright future on the PGA Tour. Just 22, he already has a victory to his credit (2018 AT&T Byron Nelson) and a mentor in four-time major winner Brooks Koepka, who describes the former NCAA champion from the University of Oregon as “super talented”
Still, anyone (Koepka included) who would have predicted that Wise would shoot an opening five-under 66 at Pebble Beach to sit one stroke off the first-round lead at the U.S. Open in the process, is either lying, a member of Wise’s immediate family, or both.
Why so surprising? Consider the fact that in Wise’s two previous U.S. Open starts, 2016 at Oakmont and 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, the Southern California native missed the cut both times. And his scores in his four rounds have been ugly: 74-76-77-74.
Then there’s how his 2018-’19 has played out so far. In 16 starts, Wise has just one top-10 finish and ranks 101st on the FedEx Cup points list. In his title defense last month at the Byron Nelson, he finished T-43, followed with a T-41 at the PGA Championship and then missed cuts at Memorial and the RBC Canadian Open. It’s not the kind of momentum you’d like to be carrying into the year’s third major.
Yet despite starting with a bogey on Pebble’s opening hole, the par-4 10th which finished the day as the most difficult, Wise didn’t get rattled. He birdied six of his next 12 holes and made pars on his last five to post his second best score of the season and the second lowest score of any player in the field with an afternoon tee time.
“Honestly, I just wanted to play well,” Wise said. “And I didn’t know what that was going to be for me. Obviously the U.S. Open changes venues every year, and you just don't know what that course—if it’s going to fit you well, if it’s not.”
Unexpectedly, it was Wise’s putter that did the heavy lifting. He finished the day with a 4.33 in strokes-gained/putting, ranking him second best for the day. By comparison, during the 2018-’19 season, Wise has -.360 mark, ranking him 176th.
“That’s kind of what's been missing this whole year for me in a way,” Wise said. “And today I was able to putt well. These are greens I’m kind of accustomed to being from Southern California. And felt like the ball-striking part’s always been there. It was nice to see some putts drop and it added up to a great score.”
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Wise played a practice round at Pebble on Tuesday with Koepka, the two-time defending U.S. Open champion, something he’s done more of in 2019. The ability to pick the brain of a man who’'s major record is among the game's best has been something Wise has found helpful, even if it hasn’t resulted in immediate dividends in results.
“Maybe just some strategy stuff I can take from him,” Wise said. “And on top of maybe just a strategy, something I can take away from him is just his calmness, not only just playing in those practice rounds but I’ve seen him multiple times through the events like today when I was on 17 tee he was on 4 tee. And just saying, hey. And he’s literally the calmest person in the world. It’s just a calming influence and I can kind of just take away his mentality towards these, and the fact that he really slows things down and calms things down even more and that works well for him.”
Wisely, Wise didn’t want to overplay his Thursday performance, noting things can change drastically at a major. But he is optimistic that he can reset his game and salvage the season with a good performance this week.
“I haven’t had exactly the best year yet that I wanted to,” Wise said. “But we still have two majors left and a WGC event and a playoff. So it’s kind of been a learning curve for me with this shortened schedule realizing that there are still some big events ahead of me.”
Including the one he’s leading after 18 holes.