Thursday 23 March 2017

The Pebble Beach generation game

Rory McIlroy keeps a close eye on world number one Tiger Woods on the practice green at Pebble Beach yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Rory McIlroy keeps a close eye on world number one Tiger Woods on the practice green at Pebble Beach yesterday. Photo: Reuters

IT'S 89 years since a teenager won the US Open. John McDermott, the first American to win this event in 1911, is still its youngest champion at 19 years, 10 months and 14 days.

1 Teenage Sensations

Few imagined McDermott's record ever being broken ... until Ryo Ishikawa burst onto the scene.

Still 18, Ishikawa has already won seven times on the Japan Tour and in May posted the lowest round ever on a major professional circuit with his winning 58 at the Crowns in Nagoya.

That same Sunday, Rory McIlroy won at Quail Hollow with his sensational 62 and, who knows, both could go head-to-head down the stretch at Pebble Beach on Sunday.

The other teenagers at Pebble this week are Seung Yul Noh, already a two-time winner on the Asian Tour; fellow Korean Byeong-Hun An, who became the youngest winner of the US Amateur last year, and another 19-year-old amateur Kevin Phelan from Waterford, via Jacksonville, Florida.

2 Roaring Twenties

DUSTIN JOHNSON (25) might be the crown prince of Pebble Beach after completing back-to-back victories in the AT&T National Pro-Am in February.

Yet this course plays so differently at the US Open in June, Johnson might have won those events in Timbuktu, for all the good it'll do him this week.

Still, Johnson's a big-hitter on the PGA Tour and, in the absence of Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim, could finish best of America's 20-year-olds, while Martin Kaymer (25) Camilo Villegas (28) Adam Scott (29) and the magnificent Molinari brothers, Francesco (27) and Edoardo (29), loom large amongst the international challengers.

The hottest prospect of them all, however, is Ireland's McIlroy (21) a top-10 finisher on his US Open debut at Bethpage last summer. Should he tap into the same form that helped him demolish Phil Mickelson and company at Quail Hollow, McIlroy could easily join Nicklaus, Watson, Kite and Woods on the US Open roll of honour at Pebble Beach.

3 Top-class Thirties

IT'S said professional golfers don't fully mature until they are 30 and Sunday's winner could easily come from this age bracket -- Europe's No1 Lee Westwood (37) and three-time Major champion Padraig Harrington (38) being the obvious contenders as Tiger tries to rediscover his A-game.

Defending champion Lucas Glover (30), Stewart Cink (37) who whipped the Claret Jug from under Tom Watson's nose at Turnberry last July, and Tiger's conqueror in the US PGA at Hazeltine, YE Yang (38), all deserve respect.

Tim Clark's recent breakthrough win in the Players Championship at Sawgrass puts him into the frame, while Zach Johnson, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald will all fancy their chances on a course that places accuracy, patience and a superior short game well ahead of power.

For sure, Harrington has superior know-how at the Majors. Yet Westwood, who clinched his first US PGA Tour victory in 12 years in Memphis last Sunday, has the confidence to break his duck at the Majors after frustrating third-place finishes in the 2008 US Open and Turnberry last summer. He also led into the final round before losing out to Mickelson in April's US Masters.

4 Formidable Forties

FORTY used be the age at which the professional golfer's prospects receded faster than his hairline, but Vijay Singh (47) and Kenny Perry (49) have turned that theory on its head in recent years.

Only a fool would dare suggest to Mickelson, 40 yesterday, or Ernie Els, or Jim Furyk, or Angel Cabrera, or Retief Goosen -- all Major champions who recently crossed that Rubicon -- they're any poorer as players.

Steve Stricker, 43 and fit again after a recent shoulder injury, is another well placed to take advantage of Tiger's fall from grace and power at Pebble Beach.

However, Mickelson, who picked up his fourth Major title at April's Masters, is the one man with enough charisma to fill the vacuum, albeit temporary, left by Woods at the top of the sport.

The swashbuckling style that makes Mickelson such a big hit with the fans can be a liability at the US Open, where he has finished second, a record five times.

Yet if he wins at Pebble Beach this week, it'd be a dream come true.

5 Defiant Fifties

FRED FUNK was the only player in his 50s who didn't have to pre-qualify for Pebble Beach -- courtesy of his victory at the 2009 US Senior Open.

Tom Lehman and David Frost, one of the men the 2006 Ryder Cup captain beat in sudden-death at last month's Senior US PGA, had to fight their way through to Pebble Beach last Monday week.

If experience counts for anything, the aggregate 48 US Opens this distinguished trio has played should stand to them on a course where smart, prudent play will be crucial.

Lehman, winner of the British Open at Lytham in 1996 and the only player in modern times to play in the final pairing at four consecutive US Opens (95-98), survived all four rounds in the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1992, when he finished sixth behind Tom Kite, and 2000. He may not win the Open but Lehman certainly has the know-how to contend.

6 Sixty, Not Out!

ONE shot has defined the superlative career of Tom Watson (60) at the Majors. It came at the par-three 17th at Pebble Beach in 1982, when Watson holed out from tangled rough to the back of the green for an improbable birdie, which clinched victory over Jack Nicklaus.

Famously, when caddie Bruce Edwards urged him to "get it close", Watson replied: "hell, I'm going to hole it."

Defiant words from Watson that made the subsequent shot all the more special and underlined the fighting spirit that helped him win eight Majors.

That same spirit and an uncanny ability to reap dividends in the wind, ensured he would remain a contender in golf's most demanding arena, right up to last year's Open at Turnberry.

So if it blows at Pebble this weekend, Watson could thrill the world of golf once again -- at the very course where his journey through the Majors began in 1972.

Irish Independent

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