Pebble Beach — Justin Thomas says missing the PGA Championship with a wrist injury was difficult but instructive, and he hopes he will have a chance to apply what he learned watching Brooks Koepka’s Bethpage triumph when the US Open tees off this week at Pebble Beach.
“I feel like I learned a lot,” said the world No7, who claimed his lone Major title at the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in 2017.
The seven-shot lead Koepka took into the final round at Bethpage in May dwindled to one stroke on the back nine before he emerged with the victory — his fourth Major triumph.
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“Watching how he handled that and the adversity that was thrown at him and just the shots that he hit when he needed to, because I know that I can get a little bit up and down with my emotions,” Thomas said on Monday after practicing at sun-drenched Pebble.
“I just feel like he handled that really well. So maybe if I got in that scenario then I could — I hate to say channel my inner BK, to boost his ego — but definitely show some of those characteristics.”
Thomas has had his own experience defending a big lead. He took a seven-stroke lead into the final day of the 2017 Sony Open, and won by the same margin.
“It’s still, to this day, the most nervous I’ve been teeing off,” Thomas said, adding that the pressure only increased with reporters helpfully pointing out that: “No one has ever blown a seven-shot lead in the history of the PGA Tour on Sunday.
“Every question I got was led with that,” he said. “It was tough at the Sony Open. So I can’t imagine how it was at the PGA Championship.”
Koepka passed the test and arrived at Pebble Beach this week chasing history. He can become just the second golfer, after Willie Anderson in 1903, 1904 and 1905 to win three straight US Open championships after his victories at Erin Hills in 2017 and wind-whipped Shinnecock Hills in 2018.
Thomas says there is no better place to pursue such a feat than the scenic course on the rugged northern California coast.
“Every Major has their ‘o’h, wow, you won the US Open at Pebble Beach or you won the Open Championship at St Andrews’,” Thomas said. “This is as good as it gets for a US Open.”
Koepka was on the course on Monday. So was 15-time Major champion Tiger Woods — whose 15-shot US Open triumph at Pebble in 2000 remains a monumental achievement.
“From what I’ve heard from everybody, the course is absolutely perfect,” said Thomas, who limited himself to the practice areas on Monday.
“Jordan [Spieth] said it’s the best Poa annua [US bluegrass] greens he’s ever seen in his life. I’m excited to check it out. I really do love US Opens,” Thomas said. “I love the test, the grind. They just have a different feel to them, like all the Majors do.”
With an iconic venue at their disposal, the US Golf Association will be under the microscope. Woods and world No3 Rory McIlroy went on record in May saying they wished the USGA would go back to traditional US Open style course setup of tight fairways and dense rough, and perhaps forego some of the gimmicky multiple teeing grounds, graduated rough and chipping areas that have featured in recent years.
Plenty of players have continued to grumble about the conditions during the third round at Shinnecock in 2018, when high winds dried out the greens and made for a brutal day. Players are bound to be frustrated at times on Pebble’s Poa annua greens, which tend to become bumpy.
But John Bodenhamer, who has taken over the job of course setup for the USGA, says the organisers’ aim is to let the players “showcase the very best of who they are. We just want to get out of the way of it, so when they do what they do, that’s the show,” he said.