Kitayama claims top spot after second round at Pebble Beach, Hovland closes the gap

By Sports Desk February 03, 2023

Kurt Kitayama sits alone atop the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am leaderboard after Friday's second round with a score of nine under.

Kitayama enjoyed a strong seven-under 64 on his opening round at Monterey Peninsula Country Club – the easiest of the three courses being used – and backed it up with a two-under 70 at the flagship Pebble Beach Golf Links.

He shot three birdies and one bogey on the championship course, which has hosted six U.S. Open tournaments, and will also be the site of Sunday's final round this weekend.

Kitayama will look to remain in pole position after playing the Spyglass Hill course in his third round, with the cut to take place after all players have played all three courses.

First-round leader Hank Lebioda found the Pebble Beach track far more difficult than Monterey Peninsula, opening the week with an eight-under 63 before following it with an even par 72 to remain at eight under, tied for second.

He is joined by fellow Americans Brandon Wu, Keith Mitchell and Joseph Bramlett – who all played at Monterey Peninsula on Friday. Of the five players to shoot rounds of five under or better, all took place at Monterey Peninsula.

Ireland's Seamus Power is one further back at seven under, and he is joined in a five-man group that includes Japan's Satoshi Kodaira and the USA's Scott Stallings, who both sit in a strong position.

Both Kodaira and Stallings have already got the two difficult courses out of the way, and will have a chance to slingshot to the top when they tee up at Monterey Peninsula on Saturday.

Of the big names, world number 11 Viktor Hovland pulled to within three strokes of the lead at six under, while three-time major champion Jordan Spieth is two further back at four under.

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  • U.S. Open: Scheffler facing Schauffele shoot-out at Pinehurst? U.S. Open: Scheffler facing Schauffele shoot-out at Pinehurst?

    The third major of the year is upon us, and one man in particular will be hoping it goes more smoothly than the second.

    World number one Scottie Scheffler saw his bid for a first PGA Championship crown unravel at Valhalla Golf Course, with Xander Schauffele ultimately edging out Bryson DeChambeau and Viktor Hovland for his first major crown.

    Many expect the duo – currently the top two in golf's world rankings – to battle it out for glory on Course No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort this week, as the U.S. Open heads back to North Carolina. 

    Rory McIlroy could have something to say about that, with last year's second-place finish at the U.S. Open the closest he has come to ending his decade-long major drought.

    Ahead of the 124th edition of the tournament, which features the largest purse of any major at $20million, we run through the likely contenders, the storylines to keep an eye on and what to expect from the course.

    The course

    Pinehurst No. 2 is hosting the U.S. Open for the fourth time, having previously been used for the 1999, 2005 and 2014 editions. 

    Since it first welcomed the event, the course has been home to the tournament more times than any other venue.

    The course, which was renovated in 2011, is known for rewarding putting accuracy over driving excellence, and it has not always favoured home players in the past.

    While Pinehurst No. 2's first staging of the U.S. Open produced a United States-born victor in Payne Stewart, New Zealand's Michael Campbell triumphed in 2005 and Germany's Martin Kaymer won by eight strokes in 2014. 

    That was the second-largest margin of victory recorded at the U.S. Open since the World War II after Tiger Woods triumphed by 15 shots at Pebble Beach in 2000.

    Expect four gruelling days. Indeed, across the previous four editions of the U.S. Open to be played at Pinehurst No. 2, only Kaymer in 2014 (-9) finished with a score better than one under par for the week.

    The contenders 

    Fresh off the back of his first major success, Schauffele will expect to be in the running again. He is one of four players to finish inside the top 10 at both of this year's majors to date, having ranked eighth at the Masters. The others to do so are Scheffler, DeChambeau and Collin Morikawa.

    Five players have previous won both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open in the same year – Gene Sarazen (1922), Ben Hogan (1948), Jack Nicklaus (1980), Woods (2000) and Brooks Koepka (2018).

    The clear favourite once again, though, is Scheffler. 

    He was arrested and charged with second-degree assault of a police officer, third-degree criminal mischief, reckless driving and disregarding traffic signals from an officer after attempting to pass an incident outside Valhalla ahead of his second round last month.

    He finished the tournament in a share of eighth – an admirable effort, given the disruption – and saw his charges dismissed just 12 days after his arrest.

    The incident has not done much to affect his form. Scheffler claimed his fifth title of the year at the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament last week, becoming just the second player – alongside Woods – to win the Players Championship, Masters and Memorial in the same year.

    He has won five of his eight tournaments on the PGA Tour since March, finishing T2 twice and T8 once in the other three. 

    Reflecting on the way he responded to his arrest at Valhalla, Scheffler said: "I call it compartmentalising parts of my life.

    "So I have my off-course life and then I have my on-course life, when I'm out here practicing and playing tournaments. I don't show up to these tournaments just to play. I'm here to do my best and compete."

    Besides Scheffler and Schauffele, McIlroy will be hoping to go one better after finishing one stroke behind champion Wyndham Clark at last year's U.S. Open.

    Having fallen short at the year's first two majors, the Northern Irishman hopes the firm conditions expected in North Carolina will play into his hands. 

    "After the Open Championship in 2019 I'd had a disappointing run in the majors, and I tried to change my mindset," he told The Telegraph.

    "Since then I've come to love it when it is fast and firm. If you look at my results in the U.S. Open and some of the toughest tests from 2019 until now, I would say the U.S. Open has arguably been my best major in the last few years."

    Morikawa should also be there or thereabouts, having been narrowly edged out by Scheffler on his most recent outing at the Memorial.

    Alongside Ludvig Aberg, he has the most top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour this year without a victory (six). Might his luck turn this week?

    The legends

    The U.S. Open will also feature a couple of players attempting to recapture past glories, with Woods the one most fans are looking forward to seeing.

    He missed the cut at the PGA Championship after carding scores of 72 and 77, subsequently admitting improvements are needed in all areas if he is to fare better on his first U.S. Open appearance since 2020.

    "I need to clean up my rounds," Woods said after the PGA Championship. "Physically, yes, I am better than I was a month ago.

    "I still have more ways to go, lots of improvement to do physically, and hopefully my team and I can get that done pre-Pinehurst."

    Only four players – Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus (four apiece) – have bettered Woods' three U.S. Open triumphs, and his most recent victory at the event was the last to be decided by a playoff, seeing off Rocco Mediate in 2008.

    While Woods has enjoyed plenty of success at the U.S. Open, the same cannot be said for Phil Mickelson.

    It is the only major he has not won in his 32 attempts, 30 as a professional and two as an amateur, and his six second-place finishes at the U.S. Open are more than any other player.

    The first of those came 25 years ago, at Pinehurst No. 2.

    The history 

    For all the big names on show, the U.S. Open does have a tendency to throw up surprise victors.

    Indeed, since Woods triumphed at Torrey Pines in 2018, 12 of the next 15 U.S. Opens have produced a first-time major champion. That includes the last five editions, with Gary Woodland, DeChambeau, Jon Rahm and Matt Fitzpatrick triumphing before Clark.

    Clark could become just the fourth player since World War II to retain the U.S. Open title, after Hogan (1950 and 1951), Curtis Strange (1988 and 1989) and Koepka (2017 and 2018). 

    Last year's victory at Los Angeles Country Club remains his only top-30 finish at a major – he missed the cut at this year's Masters and PGA Championship.

    The U.S. Open was formerly known as a real test of endurance, but things have changed somewhat in recent years.

    From 2005 to 2013, six of nine editions produced an even/over-par winning score, but nine of the last 10 have been won with an under-par score, the exception being Koepka's 2018 victory at Shinnecock Hills (+1).

    What kind of score will be required this time out? If Scheffler maintains his outstanding form, he will take some beating. 

  • Scheffler does not feel there is a target on his back at US Open Scheffler does not feel there is a target on his back at US Open

    Scottie Scheffler has insisted that he does not feel there is a target on his back as he aims to capture his third major championship victory in this week's US Open at Pinehurst. 

    Scheffler's victory at the Memorial Tournament last week saw him become only the fourth PGA Tour player in the past 60 seasons to win five times before the end of June.

    It was the American's fifth win in eight PGA Tour starts, having also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, The Players, The Masters and RBC Heritage, last missing a cut in August 2022. 

    "I try not to think about the past too much, and I try not to think about the future too much," Scheffler told the media.

    "I just try and live in the present. Sometimes it's easier and sometimes it's a bit harder.

    "I feel like coming off of last week, I was really excited and celebrated for a few minutes there, but my mind kind of just goes on to the next thing. I was getting ready, trying to get out of there and trying to prep for next week.

    "I'm not thinking about my wins anymore. All I'm focused on is this week and getting ready to play. Just because I won last week doesn't give me any shots against the field this week.

    "We all start even par, and the field is level again starting on Thursday. Last week doesn't really matter. I still don't feel like there's much of a target on my back. It's not like anybody is out there playing defence."

    Scheffler will tee off with PGA Championship winner Xander Schauffele and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy in Thursday's first round, the players closest to him in the world rankings. 

    "When I play with Xander and Rory here Thursday and Friday, they're not going to be saying weird stuff to me out on the golf course or trying to block my putt from going in the hole," Scheffler added.

    "As far as a target on my back, even if there was, there's really not much we can do in the game of golf. Most of it is against the golf course and playing against yourself."

    Scheffler would be the first golfer to win on tour and capture a major the following week since McIlroy at the 2014 PGA Championship.

  • Rahm withdraws from US Open due to foot injury Rahm withdraws from US Open due to foot injury

    Jon Rahm has withdrawn from the US Open due to a troublesome foot injury, just two days before the tournament starts in North Carolina.

    The Spaniard arrived at Pinehurst's famed Number Two course wearing one shoe on his right foot and a flip-flop on his left after a cut between his toes turned into an infection.

    "It is doing better, but the pain is high," said the 29-year-old at his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday.

    Yet the world number eight, who won the US Open title in 2021, confirmed his withdrawal later in the day.

    "After consulting with numerous doctors and my team, I have decided it is best for my long-term health, to withdraw from this week's US Open Championship," Rahm wrote on social media.

    "To say I'm disappointed is a massive understatement!

    "I wish all my peers the best of luck and want to thank all of the USGA staff, volunteers and community of Pinehurst for hosting and putting on what I'm sure will be an amazing championship!

    "Hopefully I'll be back in action sooner than later!"

    Rahm has not won since making the move to LIV Golf from the PGA Tour last December, while the 29-year-old shared 45th at this year's Masters and missed the cut at last month's PGA Championship.

    The two-time major winner had previously finished inside the top 25 in his last five outings at the US Open.

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