It is a puzzle that, if solved, could net Jason Day a US Open victory. The Australian former world No.1 owns an impressive record at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am without ever having played particularly well at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
In the 10 times Day has contested the US PGA Tour’s celebrity-laden tournament, he has finished in the top-six on six occasions. He tied for fourth this February, was tied runner-up last year and tied for fifth in 2017. But what has stopped the Queenslander lifting the trophy?
“The years he has done well, he has taken advantage of Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Country Club,” Colin Swatton, Day’s long-time coach, tells Australian Golf Digest. “He has made his scores on those two courses, but hasn’t necessarily played awesome at Pebble Beach.”
Indeed, Day’s scoring averages are solid at the other two courses used during the event – 66.25 at the par-71 Shore course at Monterey Peninsula and 69.12 at the difficult Spyglass Hill. But it is a 70.46 average at Pebble Beach – which plays as a very gettable par 72 in the Pro-Am – that has let Day down at the annual tour stop. It isn’t a problem, rather something very obvious and easy to focus on in preparation for his ninth US Open.
A Tale Of Two Courses
The US Open returns to Pebble Beach for the first time since 2010, when Graeme McDowell won his only Major title to date. Nine years ago, Day had not even made his Major championship debut – that would come a month later at the British Open at St Andrews. But by the 2010 US Open, Day had played the Pro-Am three times. He knew that the three courses – and more importantly the style of golf required on California’s Monterey Peninsula – suited him perfectly.
“Pebble will be a totally different ball game at the US Open,” Day says. “The fact it’s a US Open is one thing, but the Californian coast changes a lot from February to June. Although it won’t be such an issue for me; ‘Swatto’ and I normally practise shots that are needed in wet and soft conditions for the Pro-Am. That’s mainly stance, where the swing bottoms out, spin/trajectory and how far the ball flies in winter. This will just be about preparing for the opposite.”
“Pebble will be a totally different ball game. The fact it’s a US Open is one thing, but the Californian coast changes a lot from February to June.” – Jason Day
Day and Swatton are likely to spend some time glued to TrackMan and working on his swing at home in Columbus, Ohio, in the lead-up to the US Open. They will then fly to Pebble Beach the week before the tournament to get acclimatised to the weather and course conditions.
“I think the fairways will be firmer,” Swatton says when asked how Pebble will play different. “The greens will be a lot firmer than the Pro-Am, which is huge because they are small greens with huge slopes.
“Holes like 10 (495 yards at the US Open), 11 (390 yards), 13 (445 yards) and 14 (580 yards) will play a lot tougher; the fairways are firmer and the ball is going to roll out more and make it difficult to hold the fairways.”
As Ron Kroichick, the highly regarded golf writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, explains, Pebble Beach at the US Open will be chalk and cheese compared to the Pro-Am. “No two tournaments in golf are more different,” Kroichick wrote in February. “The winning score in each of the previous four AT&Ts has been at least 17-under par; Brandt Snedeker won at 22-under in 2015. By comparison, only one player finished below par in the past two US Opens at Pebble and that was Tiger Woods (12-under) in his epic 2000 stampede. Graeme McDowell prevailed at even-par in 2010.”
“Only one player finished below par in the past two US Opens at Pebble and that was Tiger Woods (12-under) in his epic 2000 stampede.”
– Ron Kroichick, San Francisco Chronicle
The standout differences between the Pro-Am and the US Open will be in the width of the fairways, speed of the greens and the fact it will be a par 71 – with the USGA reducing the par-5 second hole to a par 4 that will measure up to 502 yards. Pebble Beach plays at 6,913 yards during the Pro-Am, while this month it will measure up to 7,040. Pebble Beach has some of the smallest greens among PGA Tour courses outside the Majors, and they will be devilish to negotiate in June with the USGA bringing their speeds up to lightning. Players at the Pro-Am in February also noticed Pebble’s fairways were already pinched in. During the US Open, they’ll be narrowed to between 25 and 30 yards in the landing areas, down from about 45 yards.
Up until 2017, Day owned an impressive run of results at the US Open. He didn’t finish worse than eighth between 2013, when he tied for second behind Justin Rose, and 2016, when he shared eighth place. He also finished runner-up at his US Open debut in 2011. That run ended when Day played terribly at Erin Hills in 2017 and was sent packing on Friday afternoon, and a year later the USGA butchered the setup so badly at Shinnecock Hills that Day – and many of the world’s best golfers – missed the cut.
What Day’s results prior to 2017 suggest is US Open setups are tailor-made for his game, which he has built on powerful driving, a razor-sharp short game and world-class putting. With greens at the US Open always presented rock hard and running at break-neck speeds, the strengths of good iron players are somewhat reduced. It is why Day and Swatton are not overly concerned about Day’s Pebble Beach scoring deficiency each February, although the 31-year-old will need to step up.
“What Jason and I will need to ask is, ‘How can we come up with a different game plan that is going to produce a score that can win?’” Swatton says. “Hopefully, that’s even-par.
“Generally, the player who prevails at Pebble is someone who can take advantage of the par 5s and the shorter par 4s; someone who can get the ball up around the greens regularly. That’s why Dustin Johnson has won the Pro-Am two times and was in contention (he was the 54-hole leader) at the 2010 US Open. He is remarkable at capitalising on the scoring opportunities his length and accuracy present.”
Day’s results at the US Open
Ironing Out The Kinks
Day’s Achilles heel has always been the irons, at least in the years he has not set the golf world on fire. This season, he ranks 119th on the US PGA Tour for strokes gained in approach – a blow softened by ranking fifth in driving and fourth in putting. The last time Day finished a season inside the top 100 in strokes gained in approach was 2016, when he was ranked 33rd during a three-win season (Arnold Palmer Invitational, WGC–Match Play, Players Championship).
But Swatton says his pupil’s iron swing is getting better each week and liked what he saw at the Masters in April. At Augusta National, Day finished 11-under par and in a tie for fifth, two shots behind winner Tiger Woods. Day took a double-bogey 7 at the par-5 15th hole in the third round. You do the maths.
“I think the biggest thing I was happy about was the amount of greens in regulation he hit; Jason hit 52 greens, which was his highest ranking since he debuted in 2011,” Swatton, a passionate numbers and analytical data junkie, says while reading from his computer. “Jason’s greatest weapon is his putter and if you’re not putting your greatest weapon in play, then you’re not playing to your strength, are you?
“Going into the Masters, I made his caddie (Luke Reardon) well aware that the more often you can get that putter in his hands, the better chance you’ve got of being in contention. We needed 51 or 52 greens for the week and, as it was, Jason hit 52. Tiger hit 58. Having the right amount of birdies and bogeys was the reason he was in contention. Moving forward into the remaining Majors this year, it will be about trying to get the putter in hand as many times as he can, so we are putting for birdies not saving pars.”
“Into the remaining Majors this year, it will be about trying to get the putter in hand as many times as he can, so we are putting for birdies not saving pars.” – Colin Swatton
Don’t Blow This One
The USGA has come under heavy fire in recent years for overthinking the setups of US Open venues. After the difficulty of Oakmont in 2016 – and the rules controversy surrounding its champion, Johnson, on the final day – the 2017 venue was seen as ‘ playing too easy’. Erin Hills was an inland links in Wisconsin whose fairways were so wide the event resembled a US PGA Championship more than golf’s toughest test.
In 2018, the obsession with an even-par target distracted USGA officials from the prevailing weather at Shinnecock and a diabolical tournament unravelled. But with chief executive Mike Davis stepping away from US Open course setup duties, Pebble Beach is expected to be a welcome change of pace.
“What makes the US Open is that it’s a Major, first and foremost,” Day says. “It’s about the players in the event. Once the USGA starts becoming the attraction at the US Open, it takes away from the tournament itself and the champion. They should take a step back and let things happen.”
Pebble Beach is one of golf’s most iconic venues; showcased to the world during the US Opens in 1972, 1982, 1992, 2000 and 2010. Day predicts the USGA to bounce back this month and for the winning score to be in the single digits under par.
“I wouldn’t want people talking about the controversies that have happened over the years with rules and the course setups,” Day says. “I also wouldn’t have a problem with a champion finishing under par. You poll any of the guys out here and you’ll find single-digit winners under par are very respected.”