The U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach this week for one of the most highly-anticipated playings of the event in its 119-year history. As he has been since 2012, after starting his career in the insurance industry, Kyle Porter will be out there covering the tournament for CBS Sports.
As he traveled from San Francisco to Pebble Beach, Porter jumped on the phone with The Big Lead to give us a breakdown of what he’s expecting during this week’s competition. From Tiger Woods going for his 16th major to Brooks Koepka going for a three-peat to why he doesn’t like Rory McIlroy’s, Phil Mickelson’s or Jordan Spieth’s chances this week, here’s what Porter had to say about the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Brian Giuffra: What’s the biggest storyline you’re following going into the US Open this year?
Kyle Porter: It’s one of three, it’s Phil, Tiger and Koepka. And I think, of the three, it’s Tiger. It’s funny, and it’s sort of fitting, that Koepka going for three straight is taking a back seat to Tiger. Look, here’s the reality, if Tiger goes Augusta-Pebble less than 100 days from each other a year after his back injury, I mean I wrote this, that’s the sports story of the century. It already is pretty much with him winning Augusta, but if he goes Augusta-Pebble that would be a joke. And look, he can do it. If you look at his statistical profile, if you look at the way he’s playing right now, if you look at his history at Pebble Beach, it’s very much within the realm of possibility, and I think that has to be the primary storyline no matter what angle you’re coming at it from.
You mentioned he’s had a lot of success at the U.S. Open, but he’s actually struggled in them recently, missing the cut at the last two he’s played, and he just missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Do you think Tiger’s game and body in a place to win the U.S. Open right now?
Yeah I do. The PGA wasn’t great. He wasn’t sharp coming in. But look at the way he played at Memorial. Did he score? Not really. Is T-9 a great finish for him? Not really. But the way he’s hitting it, his strokes gained approach, his strokes gained tee-to-green, he was top-12 in both categories at Memorial. His driving has improved. It’s still probably the weakest part of his game, but he’s not going to need to hit a ton of drivers at Pebble. I just think it sets up for him to have a ton of irons, to be able to use that institutional knowledge and distance control he’s so good at and create a ton of opportunities. And he’s leading the PGA Tour in greens in regulation right now, so you add all that up and you’re looking at it like, he has a chance to go Augusta-U.S. Open to start 2019 and that would be pretty incredible.
You mentioned Brooks Koepka earlier, if he wins three straight U.S. Opens, which hasn’t happened since 1905, where does he put himself in the all-time rankings?
All-time is tough. I always struggle with that. I’ve gotten into some Twitter meltdowns saying Phil is a top-10 player of all time, which I think he is. Here’s the thing with Koepka, if he wins this week, no active golfer except for Tiger will have more majors than him. So he would have five, Phil would have five and Tiger would obviously have 15. That would be pretty incredible to do before turning 30. So if he wins three in a row and gets to five at 29 years-old, I think you’re talking about a top-20 golfer right now even if he doesn’t do anything else. I know that sounds crazy, but the five-and-over club is not big. Rory’s not in it, Spieth’s not in it. You’re talking about guys like Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and Ben Hogan and Phil Mickelson. These are Top 10 guys of all time, so I think he would be right up there in the top 20 if he does this.
You also mentioned Phil. He was talking about how he only has two more chances to win a U.S. Open, this year and then at Winged Foot. From that perspective, what are you looking at from Phil coming in and does he have a chance to complete the career grand slam?
I think it’s so hard for him. I think deep down he knows that Merion was probably the year in 2013 when he was runner0up to Justin Rose at that U.S. Open. I think he said Pebble and Winged Foot, but look, he hasn’t finished top 10 in a major since that ’16 Open Championship that he lost to Henrik Stenson. He hasn’t finished top 10 in a U.S. Open since ’13, the one he lost to Rose. So I think it would take a borderline miracle to not just win, but even to be in contention. The way that he’s hitting it off the tee is not great. I don’t even think he’s in the top 200 in driving accuracy. I don’t think you’re going to have to be the most accurate guy in the field, but you’re going to have to hit fairways and I don’t know if he’s capable of that right now.
Rory is coming off this amazing 61, which could have been a 60 or 59, to win the Canadian Open. He’s had 10 top 10s this year and is having an absolutely unbelievable year, and yet he’s struggled at the U.S. Open recently missing the cut the last three years. What are your expectations coming in and why has he struggled at U.S. Opens recently?
I think U.S. Opens and majors in general are very different than regular PGA Tour events. He’s so good at regular PGA Tour events and then he gets into different kinds of courses at U.S. Opens and for whatever reason he struggles. I think, and this is what I’m worried about him this week, and it’s the distance control. So often U.S. Opens are affected by wind, by weather and he sometimes struggles to figure out the distance control thing. When courses are firm and fast, it hasn’t gone great for him as late, which is weird to me. He should be one of the best major championship players in all of golf. He has all the shots. His ball striking is so unbelievably good. It just hasn’t worked at U.S. Opens. These greens are so small, I worry about the distance control with him if the wind picks up, which it inevitably will at Pebble Beach.
Who are your top 3 contenders to win?
Can I give you four?
Ok, my top four are DJ (Dustin Johnson), Brooks and then two guys you might not be expecting: Xander (Schauffele) and Patrick Cantlay.
Has Cantlay had success at Pebble?
I don’t know. I look at the regular PGA Tour event at Pebble and I just think, how much can we really take away from that? My thing with Cantlay is he’s top-5 on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole, his iron play is just unbelievable, he’s one of the best iron players in the world and he’s coming off a win at Memorial. And then with Xander, two straight Top 10s at U.S. Opens, he’s been awesome at major championships and for whatever reason he continues to fly under the radar. So those are my top 4 guys going into this week at Pebble.
Who are a few dark horses you think will contend this week?
It depends on how you define dark horse, but Hideki Matsuyama is like 40-to-1, which to me is a crazy number for someone who is, I think, second on tour in approach shots. And that’s what this week, to me, is going to be all about. Now, he might putt a few balls in the Pacific Ocean, which is not great, but I just think when you have a ball striker like that, he has to be right up there with the guys who are 15-to-1 or 20-to-1.
Do you think Jordan Spieth has finally figured it out? He’s had three straight Top 10s on the PGA Tour. Do you think he puts it together and contends this week?
No I really don’t. You look at his three straight top 10s and it’s a little smoke and mirrors. It’s been a lot of putting and a lot of chipping in. It’s been a lot of short-game work, a lot of magic from the short game, and it sounds great, like this is what Spieth does. But the reality is when Spieth wins, he strikes the ball. He was No. 1 on the PGA Tour in 2017 in iron play and that’s how you win a U.S. Open. And I followed him at Bethpage and he isn’t finding the center of the club face and he hasn’t been for a long time. So that’s the part, when I’m picking someone to win the U.S. Open, I want someone who is striking it really well and he just hasn’t been doing that.
How much pressure is on the USGA to get it right this year?
I think there’s a lot and I think the reason why, and Rory said this at Memorial, he said, if you can’t get Pebble right then there’s going to be some issues, and I think that’s right. And not only that, but you’re switching the course set up from Mike Davis, who everyone loves to hate, to John Bodenhamer to do the course setup. I don’t think that was by accident. I think you can make that transition in a Pebble year because in theory Pebble should be easier to set up than other years. But I think the USGA is unfairly skewered at times, but it hasn’t been a great run. They’ve had a few years where they’ve screwed some stuff up and it snowballs from there and they become a scapegoat and again, I think a lot of that is unfair. But they’ve got to get some good PR going back in their direction and I think Pebble is a great place to do that.
Do you put any weight behind the anonymous quotes from a player saying people would consider boycotting the U.S. Open?
No, not really, and here’s the reason why, because the only way that actually carries weight is if Tiger’s involved. And if Tiger’s not involved, it doesn’t really matter. And as someone who covers golf, I cover two tours, I cover the Tiger tour and I cover everybody else, and that’s just the reality. People don’t like it, but that’s just the way it is. So you either have to get everybody, like the other 155 guys to boycott, or you’re going to have to get Tiger and I don’t think either one of those is ever going to happen.
What’s the hardest aspect of the course people can’t tell on TV?
I don’t know if this will come through on TV, but the greens are so small, and when you run into a U.S. Open setup run by the USGA, you know they want to grow the rough and at times that rough is so close to the edge of the green that if you miss a shot by three yards or five yards all of a sudden you have to get up-and-down from an impossible spot. You don’t really think of Pebble having really small greens, but it does and that can make the course that much more difficult.
What do you think the winning score will be?
I said 280, which would be 4-under. It’s a Par-71, the USGA isn’t changing the par on different holes this year, thankfully, like they did at Chambers Bay. So I think 280. Geoff Shackelford had a good report this week and he said it’s lush and there’s going to be more birdies than normal at U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. I think there’s only been one score over par that’s won a U.S. Open at Pebble, everything else has been par or better, so I think we stay there for this week.
What didn’t I ask about that you think is important going into this week?
You didn’t about my Oklahoma State guy Viktor Hovland. He could become the first amateur to win since I don’t even know when. There’s going to be a good contingent from Oklahoma State so it should be a good week.
We also didn’t talk about Rickie [Fowler]. Do you think he can win this week?
Nah, I don’t know. I’m not feeling it this week. I think if and when he wins a major it will be one of the Opens, either U.S. or Open Championship. But I don’t know, I’ve gone into U.S. Opens in the past and thought Rickie has a real chance, but I’m not feeling it this week, even though he is a great ball striker, he is a great iron player. I think part of it is the poa annua greens will sort of neutralize some of your better putters and that’s one of the things he does so well, so I don’t think that’s going to play into his hands this week.
How’d you get into golf writing and what were you doing before you got to CBS?
That’s a long story, but the short version is I was working for an insurance company in Dallas and it was a good job, a good corporate job, and I was just kind of bored by it a little bit, so I started my own Oklahoma State website, and I still run it, called Pistols Firing. From there I met some of the right people. I met Jonathan Wall, who’s now at golf.com, and I met David Ubben, who now covers the University of Tennessee for the Athletic, and they knew some people at CBS and, this is actually kind of funny because I know you interviewed Shane (Bacon ahead of the Masters) and I took Shane Bacon’s old job at CBS Sports when he moved on. So I knew I wanted to get into sports writing and I kind of tested that out for a few years running my own website and again, I was very fortunate to land where I did and I’ve tried to make the most of it.
What’s been your favorite experience of that transition and also what’s been the toughest adjustment going from insurance to writing?
I think the toughest adjustment is you have to show up every day. When you’re at a corporate job, you can kind of hide a little bit. You can kind of bury yourself in spreadsheets or whatever. But here it’s like, you have a podcast every day, you’re on video every day, you need to produce something every day and that’s tiring. I think I underestimated how tiring that was in the long term. But my favorite experience, man, it’s just, I mean I just landed here in San Francisco and I’m about to drive down to Pebble. Going to these events, my friends laugh at me, because it is work but it doesn’t feel like it. To go to the 2016 Ryder Cup, to go to Augusta for a week every year, it’s an unbelievable experience to have a profession as a job.
It does get tiring when you have those 10-12 hour days on the course, but it is worth it in the end.
Yeah, for sure. It’s funny because people equate golf writing or golf video with, ‘you must play a lot of golf.’ But it’s like, no, I don’t play a lot of golf at all. I have kids and I have to write about golf all the time and I don’t get to play very often. And they also think that going to the Masters is like I’m posted up on 16 drinking beers and hanging out. But that’s not exactly how it goes. But as far as professions go, as far as adult jobs, it’s pretty hard to beat.
How do you balance the work life with your family and the travel?
I think working from home is a big part of it. I get to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with my kids every day. My wife is awesome about understanding the fact that our family’s schedule is sometimes dictated by when Tiger Woods is playing golf. That gets old sometimes and I can see it on her face, but she’s been paramount in being understanding of that, supporting that and encouraging me. She was actually initially the one who pushed me into the Oklahoma State gig. She was like, look, you need to stop talking about stuff and do something and let’s do this for two years and if it works out and you get a bigger job because of it then so be it. And I actually transitioned from my insurance job after 23 months of running the Oklahoma State website so it was kind of prophetic by her and just a blessing for our family.
Could you imagine going back to something like that after covering golf or are you in this for the long haul?
No, it would be hard to go back. Honestly, the hardest part would be not working from home. I love being able to go and have lunches with friends or people from church and read my kids books in the morning. There’s just so much flexibility. And yeah, are you working on Saturday nights when people are hanging out and having date night and dinner parties, yeah you’re working some Saturday nights. But I wouldn’t trade that in for what I have.