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Punch Shot: Winner, surprise, dark horse at U.S. Open

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Who will win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? Who will surprise? Who is a dark horse to keep an eye on? Will the USGA get it right? Our team of writers at Pebble Beach weighs in on these topics and more.

WINNER

REX HOGGARD: Rory McIlroy. It’s been nearly five years since the Northern Irishman collected a major title, and his history at Pebble Beach, where he’s missed the cut in two starts (2018 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and 2010 U.S. Open), is awful, but his record this year speaks for itself, with two victories and 10 top-10 finishes.

RYAN LAVNER: Tiger Woods. With so few drivers needed, almost everyone in the field will be playing from the same spot in the fairway – that gives Woods, the game’s preeminent iron player, a chance to separate himself from even the likes of Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.

WILL GRAY: Dustin Johnson. It's time for the other bash brother to shine. DJ has won here twice before at the AT&T event, and he memorably let the U.S. Open trophy slip through his fingers nine years ago. But it'll be a different story this time around for DJ, as he puts all the chatter about Brooks Koepka's dominance on pause while snagging his second major title.

JASON CROOK: Patrick Cantlay. With names like Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson crowding the top of any favorite list at one of the most iconic golf courses in the world, this event just screams for a lesser-known winner. Enter Cantlay, who won two weeks ago, is a solid ball-striker on a course with small greens and is primed for a major win. He’s finished T-9 and T-3 at the Masters and PGA this year, so don’t be surprised if he adds a first-place finish here.


SURPRISE

HOGGARD: Red numbers. The USGA’s aversion to under-par scores aside, this week’s championship has all the makings of a scoring windfall relative to traditional U.S. Opens. The greens are as true as anyone can remember at Pebble Beach, the forecast is favorable and the USGA will be inclined to let the world’s best do their thing.

LAVNER: Matt Kuchar. Playing the best golf of his life, with two wins this season and six top-12s in his past seven starts, Kuchar has the kind of control game that plays so well here. The only top-10 in his U.S. Open career came at ... Pebble, in 2010, when he tied for sixth.

GRAY: Matt Kuchar. In the midst of the best season of his career, this could be a great chance for Kuchar to become a major champion. Kuchar has a quietly solid track record in this event, highlighted by a T-6 finish here in 2010, and he held a share of the 54-hole lead last week in Canada before Rory McIlroy blew the doors off the field. Two years after Birkdale, the 40-year-old just might make another deep run.

CROOK: Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. With all the hype surrounding these guys at a course where they’ve both won – recently and in historic fashion –  it’s going to be tough to live up to it. You want a surprise, neither will win, or contend, and if one or both headed home early, you heard it here first.


DISAPPOINTMENT

HOGGARD: Variety. For all the talk following last month’s PGA Championship about golf becoming a one-dimensional power game, this week’s championship at Pebble Beach was billed as the great equalizer. The layout was described as a place where long- and mid-length hitters begin the week on equal footing. Nonsense. A mid-length player will likely make a leaderboard cameo, but the winner will be a bomber.

LAVNER: Phil Mickelson. Anyone picking Phil to complete the career Grand Slam this week is going with their heart over their head. Since his win here in February, Lefty doesn’t have a top-15 finish and lags in almost every statistical category compared to previous years.

GRAY: Rickie Fowler. This won't be the week that he gets it done. So often a contender in majors, including this one where he was a runner-up in 2014, Fowler looks the part of a likely contender. But he's outside the top 100 in driving accuracy and outside the top 60 in GIR percentage, a combination that could spell doom at Pebble.

CROOK: Jordan Spieth. Sure he’s “close” to winning again. Just ask him. And his results are finally starting to back up that sentiment. But this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport, and the guy hasn’t won since 2017. It’s hard to see that changing here.


DARK HORSE

HOGGARD: Brandt Snedeker. The better-than-expected putting surfaces will fit perfectly into Snedeker’s game, and his resume at Pebble Beach, where he’s won the Pro-Am twice, proves he knows how to play the course. He won’t win, but he will be a part of the conversation late Sunday.

LAVNER: Brandt Snedeker. Jordan Spieth is the easy answer here, and for good reason, but Sneds is another guy to watch. Coming off a 60 (and T-4) last week in Canada, he’s a two-time winner at Pebble who putts Poa annua as well as anyone.

GRAY: Shane Lowry. The Irishman has been quiet the last couple of years, but he's in the midst of a resurgent season that includes a T-8 finish at Bethpage and he's coming off a runner-up finish last week in Canada. Lowry let a 54-hole lead slip away at Oakmont en route to a runner-up finish, but he was T-9 at Chambers Bay the year before and his ball-striking prowess is especially handy at a demanding setup like this one.

CROOK: Kevin Kisner. If he keeps knocking, conventional wisdom says that door will eventually open. Why not this week? Kisner has a handful of close calls in majors in the last few years and his greens-and-fairways approach sets up perfectly for Pebble Beach, especially a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.


WILL THE USGA GET IT RIGHT?

HOGGARD: Yes. They have to get this one right after all the troubles in recent years, and Pebble Beach, which has a proven track record as a PGA Tour stop and a major championship venue, is the perfect place to right the ship.

LAVNER: Yes. Quite frankly, it’s hard to screw up Pebble anyway, and given its previous mishaps the USGA will likely play it safe to keep the already bumpy greens alive in perfect weather conditions.

GRAY: If not now, when? Working with an iconic layout and equipped with a favorable weather forecast, the deck seems stacked in the USGA's favor by a wide margin this week. They'll be able to control every blade of grass and every inch of moisture on a course that doesn't need a ton of tricks or gimmicks to present a worthy championship. The gripes will grind to a halt.

CROOK: Yes. For the first time in what feels like forever, the golf gods are on the USGA’s side. They’ll get it right because they can’t screw this up, it’s almost impossible. Perfect weather for four days at Pebble Beach ... even if the scores are a little low for a typical U.S. Open (whatever that means anymore), who complains?


WINNING SCORE

HOGGARD: 6 under. This won’t be the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Tiger Woods put on a clinic on his way to a 12-under total, or the 2010 version, when Graeme McDowell finished at even par. Somewhere between punishment and pleasure would be the perfect mix.

LAVNER: 7 under. Three of the five times Pebble has hosted an Open the winning score was 3 under or better, and the modest length, receptive greens and light winds should keep the scoring reasonable once again.

GRAY: 6 under. Vegas has set the over/under at 7.5 under par, and that seems about right. But with no rain in sight the USGA will need to keep things somewhat soft the first two days before turning the oven to bake, meaning that the leaders should be well under par at the halfway point. I'll say 6 under gets the job done.

CROOK: 10 under. If the perfect-weather forecast holds, we may not see a U.S. Open record-tying 16 under, but 10 under sounds about right. Pebble Beach may be beautiful, but beauty is not an obstacle. Without wind and rain, someone is bound to go out there and put red numbers on the board four days in a row.