Golf

Gary Woodland leads U.S. Open after setting 36-hole Pebble Beach record

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USATSI

Gary Woodland leads U.S. Open after setting 36-hole Pebble Beach record

PEBBLE BEACH, CA. -- Ten months ago, Gary Woodland set the 36-hole scoring record at the PGA Championship when he posted a 10-under-par-130 to take the lead into the weekend at Bellerive Country Club. 

Friday at Pebble Beach, Woodland set another 36-hole record. 

The 35-year-old began the day at 3-under-par, but he quickly got off to a quick start on Pebble Beach's back nine. After a key par save to open his round on No. 10, Woodland got to red figures at the Par-3 12th by lacing a 6-iron to six feet to set up his first birdie of the day. Woodland made another birdie at No. 16 to make the turn at 2-under for the day. 

Then, he turned it on. 

After drilling a seven-foot putt for birdie at No. 1, Woodland carded three pars before sending an 8 iron to 15 feet on the Par-3 fifth, He poured in the putt to move to 4-under on the day and tie Justin Rose for the lead at 7-under. He birdied his very next hole to take the outright lead. Then, after draining another 15-foot putt to save par on No. 8, Woodland rode in a 50-foot birdie putt on No. 9 to close his round with a bang. 

He finished the day at 6-under-par, 9-under for the championship, which is the lowest U.S. Open 36-hole score at Pebble Beach. One better than Tiger Woods' mark of 8-under set during his iconic 2000 U.S. Open win. 

Prior to the 2018 PGA Championship, Woodland had never carded a top 10 in a major championship. He finished sixth at Bellerive and followed that up with an eighth-place finish at this year's PGA Championship. 

As Woodland prepares to sleep on the 36-hole lead, he can look back on his experience at Bellerive, where he shot a third-round 71 to fall out of the lead, to know how to handle the magnitude of the stage. 

"I mean playing in that big of a position you learn you have to stay within yourself," Woodland said about heading into the weekend with the lead. "You know, you can't get caught up in what's going on around you. Obviously, there's a lot more noise going on. Obviously, playing with Tiger on Sunday (at the 2018 PGA) I'd never seen anything like that atmosphere. I've played in a basketball arena with 16,000 people right on top of you when I played against KU. It was nothing like that.  

"But you get used to it. You stay within yourself. You slow down. You know, playing with Tiger, it's not the people outside it's the people inside the ropes. There's so much moving and excitement. You learn to slow your breathing, I mean adrenaline is a huge deal. You know, all of a sudden you start hitting the golf ball a little bit farther. You learn to stay within yourself and what you have to do to calm yourself down. And stick to your game plan."

[RELATED: History says one of these 10 golfers will win U.S. Open

Woodland will have to withstand a charge from a star-studded leaderboard if he plans to come home with his first major title. 

Rose sits two shots back, while major winners Louis Oosthuizen, Rory Mcilroy and Brooks Kopeka all are within five shots. Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott and Jon Rahm headline a group of players six shots back at 3-under-par. 

The USGA no doubt will try to toughen Pebble overnight, so Woodland should face a course with a lot more teeth Saturday and a leaderboard of major champions set on tracking him down. Best of luck, Gary.

Brooks Koepka's quest for PGA history heads to 'big boy' Harding Park

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Brooks Koepka's quest for PGA history heads to 'big boy' Harding Park

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last June, Brooks Koepka arrived at Pebble Beach looking to make history.

With a win, he would become the first person to win three straight U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson in 1903-05. Koepka unfazed by major pressure or the weight of history, made a run at his three-peat but ultimately fell short, finishing three strokes behind eventual champion Gary Woodland. Koepka became the first golfer in U.S. Open history to shoot four rounds in the 60s and not take home the trophy. 

Ever since he notched his first major championship at the 2017 U.S. Open, Koepka has become an unstoppable force. An unrelenting beast devoted to laying waste to major championship fields. He is unbothered by the pressure of the moment. Unfazed by what his competitors throw at him.

He's golf's Godzilla.

While his first run at a major championship three-peat came up short at Pebble Beach, Koepka will have another chance come May when he looks to become the first golfer to win three straight PGA Championships since Walter Hagen won four straight in the 1920s. Koepka once again will make his run at golfing history in California when TPC Harding Park hosts the 2020 PGA Championship. 

"It would be incredible," Koepka said Monday at the 2020 PGA Championship Media Day. "Obviously you look at Walter Hagen is a name everybody knows, every golf fan knows. To even have a chance to put my name with his would be incredible and it would be super special. Coming back, obviously two-time defending, it's a different feeling, and one you want to win this year for sure.

"It's something I'm looking forward to and can't wait to get the year started."

Godzilla will reemerge from the Pacific Ocean looking to wreak havoc on a brawny golf course that has one of the most picturesque finishes in golf with the Cypress Trees vividly outlining the closing stretch along Lake Merced.

Koepka hasn't set foot at Harding Park since the WGC-Match Play in 2015.

Now golf's elite destroyer of major championship fields, he's ready for the challenge the San Francisco municipal course will present.

"It's a big boy golf course," Koepka said. "You have to be able to hit it long. It's very difficult. It's a major championship golf course. You know that. You look at -- this finish will be interesting. I think it will be a great finish. You look at the back nine there, starting on about 13, 14, it gets really interesting. You're going to see a lot of -- it will be exciting, especially if it's close on Sunday. I think those holes let up for quite a few disasters and some good golf.

"You know the rough is going to be thick. You know what you're going to get. You have to be able to hit it far and you have to be able to hit it straight. There's been a precedent on making sure accuracy is big, and you know that when you come out here."

Koepka, who spent three months rehabbing from a knee injury, now is healthy. He tied for 17th at his return to golf at the Saudi International. He struggled at Riviera Country Club this past weekend, finishing in a tie for 43rd at the Genesis Invitational.

[RELATED: Rivalry or not, Rory and Brooks destined to duel in 2020]

But the four-time major winner has become known as the robot programmed to destroy the best fields in golf and not worry about the rest. He famously quipped before the 2019 British Open that he practices before majors, but doesn't ahead of other tour events.

His focus is singular in nature.

The Olympics? Not that important. FedEx Cup? The paycheck would be nice, but otherwise ... yawn.

Majors are what legacies are built from. Koepka has amassed four since 2017 and believes he can make it to double digits as he enters his golfing prime.

He'll be ready to descend upon San Francisco in May with the sole goal of romping over the field just as he did at Bethpage Black last May.

Conquering the golf's best on the biggest stage is all that matters. Filling his trophy case with relics of major glory is the only thing that can bring golf's great titan satisfaction.

How Rory McIlroy-Brooks Koepka 'rivalry' will take center stage in 2020

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How Rory McIlroy-Brooks Koepka 'rivalry' will take center stage in 2020

SAN FRANCISCO -- They are golf's alpha males. One a brute force laser-focused on eviscerating everyone in his path on the biggest stages. The other, a golfing assassin with the power, touch and deadly accuracy to lap fields without breaking a sweat. 

They are the world's two best golfers. Whether they want to admit it or not, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy appear to be on a collision course in 2020.

The pair dueled at the end of last season, with Koepka besting McIlroy at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the Northern Irishman getting his vengeance a month later at the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup.

Koepka ended last year by finishing in the top four of each major, including a win at the 2019 PGA Championship. McIlroy won The PLAYERS Championship, the Tour Championship and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year over Koepka.

When asked about the growing rivalry with McIlroy, Koepka dismissed it in October with a not-so-subtle jab. 

"I've been out here for, what, five years. Rory hasn't won a major since I've been on the PGA Tour. So I just don't view it as a rivalry," Koepka told AFP in October before the CJ Cup.

"I'm not looking at anybody behind me," Koepka added. "I'm No. 1 in the world. I've got open road in front of me I'm not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don't see it as a rivalry."

After Koepka spent the last three months rehabbing a knee injury, McIlroy overtook him as world No. 1 last week.

So, with McIlroy now in front of Koepka in the Official World Golf Rankings, has that changed the four-time major winner's views of the evergrowing rivalry?

"We haven't competed in a major, coming down the stretch," Koepka said Monday at the 2020 PGA Championship Media Day at Oracle Park. "I think the only time we really competed with each other was the WGC [St. Jude.] So other than that, we haven't been in contention in the same tournament's coming down the stretch. It's kind of hard to say there's a rivalry. People talk about the [Phil Mickelson] and [Tiger Woods] rivalry. it was kind of one-sided there for a long time too. I just don't see rivalries in golf. I really don't." 

Golf is, in its nature, a solitary game. You're competing as much against yourself, your mind, your body and the conditions as you are anyone else in the field. It's hard to calculate the number of things needed to go right in order for two golfers to duel on the biggest stages time and time again. It's not basketball or even tennis where the greats truly face each other countless times during their career.

Still, McIlroy admitted that getting beat by Koepka in Memphis gave him an edge to return the favor at the Tour Championship, and the 30-year-old gave a rather icy response last week when asked about passing Koepka as world No. 1.

“Golf isn’t about other people,” McIlroy said before the Genesis Invitational. “Golf is about yourself and getting the best out of what you have. If you keep doing that and keep that mindset, everything else will fall into place.”

McIlroy's career has traveled a unique path. In 2014, he was the dominant force in golf. He won two of the four majors and appeared primed to own the game for the next decade. He hasn't won a major since claiming the Wanamaker Trophy in the fading light at the 2014 PGA Championship. He dropped to 11th in the world in 2017, while dealing with injury and personal troubles along the way. That same year Koepka burst onto the scene by winning his first career major at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

Koepka has been golf's Godzilla ever since. A specter of death lurking at major championships ready to rip the hearts out of anyone daring to dream of major glory, winning four of the last 10 majors in which he's teed it up.

All the while, McIlroy has posted six top 10s at majors since 2017, but poor opening rounds and an apparent lack of killer instinct on Sundays has kept him out the winner's circle when it matters most.

McIlroy, now at peace with life and his place in the game, was at the peak of his powers in 2019, with everything but a major championship to show for it. He finished with the greatest non-Tiger strokes gained season since 2003 when the statistic started being tracked.

He's primed to lord over golf as he was expected to after his 2014 season. Koepka will be there to challenge him every step of the way.

[RELATED: Koepka's bid for U.S. Open history comes up short at Pebble Beach]

As the 2020 major season approaches, McIlroy and Koepka, golf's heavyweights, are on track to throw on-course haymakers at each other throughout the summer.

In 51 days, McIlroy will look to snap his major drought and claim the career grand slam at The Masters. Koepka, who might have spoiled Tiger Woods' emotional return to major glory last year if not for a ball that found the water on No. 12, will arrive at Augusta National with his sights set on cementing himself as golf's terminator.

Koepka can bristle at the notion of a rivalry. McIlroy's newfound zen approach might not give it air to breathe.

But golf's two greatest talents are destined to duel on the golf's biggest stages.

And the game is better for it.