PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – This Pebble Beach Open, on what is widely considered a thinking man’s golf course, appears destined to come down to a strong-man contest.
Two players, who in another generation might have gravitated to a more physical sport, say rugby, will square off in the final round at a U.S. Open that became abundantly more one-dimensional on Saturday.
At last month’s PGA Championship at sprawling Bethpage Black the narrative was that only a bomber, in this case Brooks Koepka, could win, but that divide would be bridged at Pebble Beach. The seaside layout was supposed to be a great equalizer that would allow the mid-length players a chance to compete.
With few exceptions that’s not the case.
Gary Woodland maintained his lead with a third-round 69 and will be paired with Justin Rose followed by Koepka, who kept with his normal modus operandi on Day 3 with a 3-under 68 in his quest to win his third consecutive U.S. Open. That’s Nos. 11, 22 and 14, respectively, in driving distance this year on the PGA Tour.
For Woodland, Sunday will be uncharted waters as he sets out with his first 54-hole lead at a major championship.
“I worked for this my whole life. I've trained since I started walking, I've played sports, I've competed. I've learned how to win, even if I haven't done it as much as I'd like,” said Woodland, who leads Rose by a stroke at 11 under par. “I know what it takes to win. I came here to win, and that's what we're going out to do tomorrow.”
Although Sunday will be a new experience for Woodland he does have some history in pressure situations. He began the final round of last year’s PGA Championship in the third-to-last group and paired with Tiger Woods. Although he finished sixth at Bellerive it was an opportunity that he envisions will prepare him for the final round at Pebble Beach.
“Playing with Tiger last year on Sunday, I don't know if I enjoyed it to start the round, I think there was a lot of moving pieces going on, and I think I kind of got caught up in it a little bit,” Woodland said. “Once I settled in, after I made a birdie putt on 8, I settled in and then I was back to being myself. And that's what I've learned from that situation, is I can't control everybody else. I can control my attitude, and I can control my game.”
His game was nearly perfect on Saturday when he made just a single bogey at the par-4 eighth hole, just his second bogey this week and his first since the ninth hole on Thursday, followed by the shot of the day that came at the 12th hole when his tee shot caught one of the “eyelash” cuts that ring the bunkers and his chip squirted out sideways. Woodland saved his par with a chip in from 11 yards.
For Rose this feels like déjà vu. The Englishman began the final round of the 2013 U.S. Open one stroke off the lead as well but closed with an even-par 70 to win his first major.
It will likely take better than an even-par round on Sunday, but Rose was confident his experience at Merion will buoy him at Pebble.
“I think at Merion I wasn't afraid to lose, and that's probably a good mindset going into tomorrow,” Rose said. “I three-putted 16 on Sunday [in 2013], and I could hear all Phil's movements on the back nine, based on the crowd. That three-putt, I let it rush off me. I didn't get frustrated. I didn't think I'd blown my chance to win.”
But if Rose can turn back the clock to his maiden major triumph, Koepka doesn’t need to think back nearly that far to draw inspiration. The 29-year-old has won four of his last eight major championships including last month’s PGA Championship.
Of all the requirements to win a major championship, Koepka’s confidence can’t be over-estimated.
Koepka’s bogey-free 68 on Saturday left him at 7 under and four strokes back, but if he was concerned with his position on the leaderboard it didn’t show after his round.
“Just keep doing what I'm doing. Obviously, whatever I'm doing is working,” he said. “I’m trying to be three back going into the back nine, you never know from there, see what happens. Make a couple of birdies, put some pressure on guys.”
It was a common theme among the remaining contenders. As Rory McIlroy, who was five shots back after a third-round 70, explained, the trick at a major, particularly at a U.S. Open, is simply to “hang around.”
Perhaps Sunday will be an epic bout between a half-dozen would-be champions, but if history and this week’s play is any indication it will more likely come down to a common theme – the strongest will survive.