In this edition of "5 Questions," we spoke with Scott Van Pelt about anything and everything PGA Tour – Gary Woodland's surprise US Open win, Brooks Koepka's dominance, the plethora of talent on the tour right now, the new tour schedule, and Scott (reluctantly) made his pick for who will win The Open. Oh, and did we mention there's a bonus question at the end?
1) To start things off, we’ll back track to the US Open at Pebble Beach. When on Sunday did you believe that Gary Woodland would win and how impressed were you with his composure, especially with Brooks Koepka nipping at his heels?
Scott Van Pelt: Well I would start with the composure part first. That was the most impressive part of it. He was never shaken. He didn’t blink, and he was being chased down by the most intimidating player in the game right now in Koepka. I mean, the guy (Koepka) has gone 2-1-2 in the majors [in 2019], so you’re trying to hold off that guy, and you’ve never done it. Woodland never really wobbled. The shot on 14 – you just don’t see people do that. You don’t cover that bunker on your second shot, but he did, and that was impressive because he had the guts take on that shot and the talent to pull it off. And then, obviously, the whole dynamic of 17 and 18, where he’s got that pitch and Koepka got really unlucky on his second [shot], I thought. Ya know, [ Koepka] could’ve had an eagle putt, and it turned out he didn’t make birdie. And at that point, now you’ve got a two shot lead playing 18, and you’re Gary Woodland, there’s no way you’re gonna let it go. So, honestly, I thought throughout the day that Gary could stand up to it, but you didn’t know it until he stood on 18 tee that he’s gonna win.
2) Jumping over to the machine that is Brooks Koepka, I saw that you picked him to win the US Open and you said, “It’s a major on a big boy course… and he’s a big boy,” which is a perfect assessment. So, with how dominant he’s been in majors for the third straight season, does he remind you of any other athletes from other sports that were able to rise to the occasion on the biggest stage, time after time?
SVP: It’s hard to think of someone like that because what’s weird, and that’s not the most eloquent word to choose, but odd, weird, whatever, he’s so good in majors. And yet, where Tiger was good in majors and won 6 or 7 times a year, Koepka largely hasn’t. So, what’s unusual about him is that, ya know, in other sports you wouldn’t get to rise to the occasion when it mattered most if you weren’t really good the rest of the time. In other words, if you don’t make the playoffs, you don’t have the chance to come up big in the Stanley Cup Final, or in the NBA Finals or in the Super Bowl. You just don’t make it. And that’s not to say he doesn’t play well the rest of the time, but he just doesn’t play like he does in majors the rest of the time. So, no, I can’t think of anyone like him. Tom Brady is Tom Brady most of the time, ya know? He doesn’t lose to the Bills twice and they don’t go 8-8, and maybe that’s not an apt comparison, because I’m not trying to say Brooks Koepka is an 8-8 regular season player, but he doesn’t win 6 times a year like Tiger when he was good in the majors. But, the point I want to make really clear is that I think Brooks has it totally figured out. Like, the rest is the rest. I wanna be great when it matters most, and I am. Obviously, I’m speaking as Brooks Koepka.
DIRECTV: Well, he’s said that too, not that he doesn’t care about anything else, but the majors are pretty much everything to him and he doesn’t really need to win anything else, in his mind.
SVP: Right, but here’s what’s unusual about that. I get that for Phil [Mickelson]. I get that for Tiger. They’e won 120-some-odd tournaments combined. Brooks, I mean, his batting average is .450 for majors, but look, I get it. I live here, where they play a tour stop that’s really popular in the Hartford area (referring to the Travelers Championship), and [Koepka] comes here, which is cool of him, and they get a great feel here because the guys and gals that run it do an awesome job. But, he doesn’t need to win at TPC River Highlands. Ya know, they’ve got a great history – Bubba’s won a couple times there, Phil’s won a couple times, Spieth’s won; they’ve got a great laundry list of winners, but if Brooks Koepka never wins at River Highlands, he’ll be ok, ya know? He’s won at Erin Hills and Bethpage, and by the time he’s done he’ll win at Augusta, and I assume he’ll have a slam by the time it’s over.
3) So there are a bunch of talented guys on the tour right now who are on the cusp of winning their first major, like Woodland just did. Looking at the list, you have Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele, Jon Rahm, and Tony Finau all getting close. Matt Kuchar is having a resurgent year, and then you have this kid Viktor Hovland who just turned pro after he won the low amateur award at both The Masters and the US Open. Who do you think is the next player on the list, or otherwise, who is going to get the monkey off his back? And who do you personally most want to see win a major?
SVP: It’s hard to win one, and the point I made on Sportscenter recently was, with Woodland winning one, I saw some people say, “well, ya know, I don’t know if he’ll do it again," kind’ve dismissive of it, and I thought, well if he never wins another, the one he won was at Pebble Beach and he held off Koepka. And right now he has the same number of majors as Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Sergio Garica, Francesco Molinari, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson – those guys are considered to be superstars. One! One major is what those guys have! So what I’m telling you is winning one is an awesome accomplishment given the depth of talent that there is and given how many guys there are that are in there. I think Schauffele would be the guy I’d pick to win it because he continues to be in every one. I picked Finau to win The Masters, and people were like, “whoa,” and he was there with a chance on Sunday. Rickie plays so much great golf, but I don’t know what the recipe is for him. I almost wonder if it gets in his head a little bit, and he’s a real flatline guy. I don’t think he gets stressed about it, but I just wonder how it would be possible to not think about it, right? So, to me, I don’t have anyone that I’d root for over another because all the guys you mentioned are wonderful guys and I’d be thrilled to see any of ‘em become a major champ. I don’t have one that I’m pulling for more than another, but if I was gonna guess, I’d guess Schauffele, simply because it seems like every time you turn on a major, he’s on the first page of the leaderboard.
4) So to switch things up, we’re three majors into the season with the new PGA Tour schedule. Are you fully onboard with the scheduling changes for 2019, with the PGA Championship and Fedex Cup Playoff being moved up earlier in the year?
SVP: 100%. Love it. I think it’s great for the game to get some sort of rhythm, where you go March - The Player’s, April - Masters, May - PGA, June - US Open. And then July - Open, that’s the oldest, and I always say the best championship in the game. And I just say that because they invented the sport and they’ve played it longer than anyone else, so I defer to them. It feels like they oughta bat cleanup, run the anchor leg, whatever sports analogy you want to use. It just feels like that’s appropriate to me and I think it sets it up to create a much better flow to the year. And then it gives them a chance to create an identity for the playoff that’s sort of standalone. And, look, I think they all know where they fall in the schedule, and that it’s vacation and people getting ready for fall and school and football. It’s hard to differentiate yourself [from other major sports], but I think now that they’ve cleared the way for the playoff, maybe they give themselves their best chance. But as far as the majors, as soon as I heard it as a possibility, I thought that makes a ton of sense and I love it.
DIRECTV: The only thing I’m gonna miss is that one Sunday at East Lake Golf Club in late September where you’re flipping back and forth between the final round back nine and the NFL, but I think this schedule is a big upgrade.
SVP: I think so. Look, it took Tiger last year in that group at East Lake to really make a dent, in terms of the gallery. That scene at East Lake will forever be remembered because it was a place where you don’t see that, and it was a scene a lot of people never thought they’d see again, with Tiger walking down the fairway and all those people with their phones out. But it took that to really make a blip on the radar up against football. That’s just a fight no sport wants to take on.
5) Can you give us an early pick for who you think will win The Open? One stipulation – you can’t pick Koepka.
SVP: I can’t?
DIRECTV: No, you're not allowed to pick Koepka.
SVP: Why do you get to make that rule? Here’s the thing about links golf on a course that we’ve never seen in competition. First of all, and I’m not picking on you, but I always get asked to pick a winner. One out of 156 people? Do you know how hard that is? It’s hard to pick a game right.
DIRECTV: We’re trying to get clicks here, Scott.
SVP: It’s a coin flip. We have a 156-sided coin that I’m flipping here. I don’t know anything about what the course will require, other than you’re gonna have some bad luck. Maybe there’s weather. Maybe there’s not. But, give me Xander Schauffele just because of what I said earlier. He seems like he’s always there. I’m shrugging. I’m doing the shrug emoji because who the hell knows? The thing I love about the open is that they set it up and if you get [bad] weather, then you’re gonna shoot a million. And if you don’t [get bad weather], then they’re fine with if you shoot 15 under. It’s fine. Come get it, you know what I mean? The way the R&A goes about setting up their championships is the blueprint. And you know, you didn’t ask me this but I’ll say it. I’ve been really critical of the USGA in the past – they did a great job with Pebble Beach, and I know it pissed some people off because they said “oh, the greens, this and that.” The USGA can’t win if you’re gonna crush them by saying Shinnecock got away from them in 2018 and you’re gonna crush them by saying Pebble was too easy, then where’s the sweet spot?
BONUS QUESTION: Would you rather see Tiger Woods break Jack’s Nicklaus’s all-time Major wins record or would you rather see Maryland win a national championship in football or basketball?
SVP: Oh, that’s not even close. Tiger’s my guy and we’ve known each other for many years. I was genuinely thrilled for him at Augusta this year. As thrilled as you could be for someone because I knew what it represented. Having said that, I’m rooting for me, okay? And I make no apologies for rooting for me. To see Maryland win another [basketball national title], I was lucky enough to be there in April of 2002. My drought is longer than his, so I’m good if Tiger’s done at 15 [major wins]. I don’t want to be stuck at one. Just give me two. That’s a vote for Maryland winning a national title.
DIRECTV: I figured that was the answer, but I just wanted to makes sure.
SVP: Well look, I’m a nice enough guy, but when push comes to shove, we’re talking about a natty, man. Tiger’s on his own.
Scott Van Pelt is host of the midnight edition of SportsCenter, which showcases his passion for sports, with his self-deprecating wit and disposition toward celebrating stars and storylines. In addition, Van Pelt contributes to ESPN’s golf telecasts of the Masters and The Open.