PEBBLE BEACH, CA – I could have sworn that Marine Layer was the name of a girl I met in Sister Frances’s eighth grade English class, but she’s not. She’s the misty, somber, cold, clammy, grey shroud that blankets northern California just as summer is about to begin, “June gloom” it’s called. Marine Layer descended upon the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Tuesday night, and she’s been an unwelcome guest ever since. Ski caps, long sleeves, windbreakers, and even mittens have the Californians looking more like Glaswegians or Londoners, leaving the cold spitting rain of the city for the cold misting rain of the coast so they can sit bundled in blankets and watch the tide roll in during a squall.
This is supposed to be sunny California. Instead it looks like the setting of The Fall of the House of Usher.
But as the sun set last night, one final prismatic crimson ray shone though the layers of cloud that hovered so oppressively low, and for a few moments there was a cheery cherry glow. Just enough to give you hope. How does the saying go? “Red sun at night, sailor’s delight.” But for whom is it a good omen?
The way Gary Woodland is playing, he hasn’t needed any omens. He’s chipping in from rough deeper than a spinach patch. He’s rolling in putts from across the topsy-turvy, bumpy poa annua greens. And he’s cool and composed even though Pebble Beach set up for a U.S. Open is a searing crucible.
“I feel very comfortable on this golf course. I’ve played well on Pebble during the AT&T the last couple of times I’ve been here,” Woodland explained post-round. “I have a lot more shots. I’ve been a cutter of the golf ball a long time. Pete Cowen has got me comfortable working the ball both ways if I need to. And that just frees me up a little bit.
I have a short game now I can rely on. I don’t have to focus on the ball-striking. This is a golf course I don’t have to pound a lot of drivers, I can play a little more conservatively, stick to my game plan. And like I said, it’s nice to be where I’m at right now, but looking forward to going out and doing it one more day.”
It’s not Woodland’s 11-under score, that’s the most astounding stat this U.S. Open, it’s that he hasn’t carded a bogey on the ferocious back nine of Pebble Beach. That’s where championship dreams go to die. In 2010 alone, Tiger, Phil, and Ernie Els all floundered to bloated scores and left the trophy on the ground fopr Graeme McDowell to pick up and take home to Northern Ireland.
Woodland’s done it with his putter, but two players lurk that are going to keep enough pressure on Gary that he can’t stand still. Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka are close enough to chase him down.
Rose, the 2013 champion from Merion, has been dogged all week. He led after Thursday, his opening 65 good enough for a 1-shot lead over a quintet of players. Woodland passed him on Friday to take a two-shot lead into the weekend, but Rose cut the lead in half yesterday.
Better still, Rose found his swing yesterday with his irons, hitting 14 greens. Rose and Woodland are ranked first and fourth in putting.
“It all comes down to the putter,” said Brooks Koepka laconically, and he’s right. The putter and greens in regulation: that’s the formula Koepka used last year at Shinnecock when he successfully defended his title. He’s employing it well this week too. He’s number one in greens in regulation, 76.0% He’s also T-16 in fairways hit, (74%). But he’s tied for 59th in putting. That’s put him at a four stroke deficit going into the final round. Not impossible, but not ideal either. He needs a superlow round (not likely with the pins tucked on Championship Sunday) or he needs both Woodland and Rose to back up ever so slightly.
“I feel like if I can just make a few putts, I feel like I could be right there, right next to Gary. And it’s been very close. I’m pleased how I’m playing. I’m pleased how I’m striking the ball,” Koepka lamented. “And I feel as confident as ever right now. It’s probably the best ball-striking week I’ve had. Pebble’s greens are so small. I think I only missed one green today, maybe two, I don’t know, if I was in the fringe or something. But to hit as many greens as I have the last two days, the ball-striking is right where I want it.”
Will the carriage turn into pumpkin for Woodland? Before last August, we thought of him more as a bit player and a curiosity than a star, a long driving champ who played well on Thursdays. But since the 2018 PGA Championship in St. Louis, it appears he may have made the “quantum leap,” that last ascent to the summit of elite quality golf for four days.
But today is Woodland’s litmus test. Right now he’s in an “Open coma” as it’s known – when the ball just goes into the cup on command, and when a player doesn’t have a care in the world and makes it look easy. But it’s Championship Sunday, and that makes all the difference.
He’s got thoroughbreds chasing him – the two-time defending champ and a Who’s who of international golf, including five former major winners should he falter.
“I know if I play my game and play like the way I’ve been playing, the guys from behind me are going to have to do something really, really special. So I’m going to go out, stay within myself, stick to my game plan and try to extend that lead more than anything.”
The gauntlet just hit the ground.
Sunrise. It’s June 16 and we’re cranking the heat in our house on the coast. So much for the sunbeam from the night before. If we’re going to have Edgar Allen Poe weather on John Steinbeck’s turf, we might as well have some wind. Let’s see them really play intelligent golf for the title.
As for who’ll win? Only Pebble Beach knows…and the Golf Gods…and you could ask Marine Layer. She might know too. I hear she’s President of France now, or something like that.