PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Aptitude unites all of the 156 men in the field at Pebble Beach, any one of whom can in theory execute the shots required to win the 119th U.S. Open. What separates them? Attitude, which has so often proven the difference in golf’s toughest major championship.
The U.S. Open isn’t a tournament that rewards the more mercurial traits sometimes seen among great players. Colin Montgomerie’s rabbit ears often turned minor distractions into major disappointments. So Monty had three second-place finishes. Phil Mickelson’s impulsiveness and aggressive style played no small part in his six silver medals in this event. Greg Norman’s self-belief was iron-clad six days a week but often buckled on Sundays. He too never won a U.S. Open, finishing second twice.
“Attitude is always important. Some weeks you have a good one, some weeks you don’t,” said Curtis Strange, who won back-to-back Opens three decades ago. “Attitude so many times is driven by the state of your game, and if the state of your game is questionable this week, attitude can help you but you will not win.”
The reverse is also true: attitude can hurt, and those players who are hampering themselves tend to show their cards early on Open week, invariably with incessant complaints about how the course set-up is tough, brutal, amateurish, unfair… Choose your adjective.
No constituency in sport has a more highly developed sense of perceived injustice than professional golfers, and the U.S. Open is their Supreme Court for grievances.
The ability to wall off the whining is key to winning. Just ask Brooks Koepka, who is pursuing a third consecutive U.S. Open title.
“I’ve just been never one to complain, make excuses. It doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to hear anybody’s excuse,” he said. “I find it annoying even when I play with guys and they’re dropping clubs or throwing them or complaining, like telling me how bad the golf course is or how bad this is. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just something we’ve all got to deal with. If you play good enough, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
Claude Harmon III, has had a ringside seat to the demands of the U.S. Open having coached the last three winners (Koepka times two and Dustin Johnson in ’16). “It tests your ability to stay disciplined,” he said. “You’re going to make mistakes and you can’t get the mistake you made back immediately. On Tour you do that. At Augusta National, when Brooks made bogey on 12 he made eagle on the next hole. The course gives you that. U.S. Opens tend not to allow you to do that.”
Even the men who have proven able for the challenges aren’t free of scar tissue. Ernie Els is here this week on a special exemption from the USGA. He won the first of his two titles a quarter-century ago. “Obviously I’m coming to the end of my U.S. Open reign as a player. It’s been 27 great years. I would like to say I enjoyed it most of the time, but it’s tough to enjoy some U.S. Open golf courses,” he said with a slightly pained smile.
Patience and tenacity are traits common in U.S. Open champions. Guys like Tom Kite. Now almost 70 years old, Kite walked Pebble Beach’s range on Wednesday with the same quiet determination he once took to its fairways. “The U.S. Open demands something a little bit extra, so you tend to see the better players rise to the top,” he said. “Especially when the golf courses are among the most difficult. Pebble is certainly that.”
Kite logged 27 top-10 finishes in majors, 15 in the top five. Nineteen of those top 10s came before his only major win, in the U.S. Open right here in ’92. Tenacity laid bare. I asked Kite if this tournament particularly tests the unseen — the fortitude and nerve necessary to triumph.
“A U.S. Open tests everything you got,” he replied.
Some players embrace that. “I really do love U.S. Opens, I love the test, the grind,” Justin Thomas said.
“It’s the toughest test in golf. It’s our national championship,” Jordan Spieth echoed.
Others try to ignore it. “I don’t necessarily feel really any different,” said Rickie Fowler. “It’s very enjoyable. I obviously look forward to them.”
Whether embracing the pressure or ignoring it, Koepka believes the key is a consistent attitude. “There’s so much pressure. There’s so many guys that shoot themselves out of it just because it’s a major,” said the man with four of them. “They change their game plan from a normal week to this week, added pressure of ‘I’ve got to play well this week.’”
It’s the kind of observation that suggests Koepka is quietly taking inventory of the complainants, the unsettled, the rattled and eliminating each one from his list of rivals at Pebble Beach. Jack Nicklaus used to do the same.
“The U.S. Open demands a different mentality, patience,” Strange said. “Pars will be a struggle at times and birdies will not be as abundant. This is not a daily sprint, but a four-day marathon.”