Major season is well and truly in full swing as the US Open gears up for action at Torrey Pines on the northern coastline of San Diego. The tournament comes just weeks after the PGA Championship finished in a blaze of glory at Kiawah Island, with Phil Mickelson convincing everyone over the age of 50 that anything is possible in golf.
Here’s what’s happening in the lead up to 2021’s third major:
THE DEFENDING CHAMPION
Bryson DeChambeau’s dismantling of Winged Foot last year showed what he’s capable of at a US Open, on a course that was as nasty as they come.
Bulked up for speed and power, DeChambeau crushed his way to a six-shot win as he pounded his driver and hacked out of the notoriously thick US Open rough with ease. If Torrey Pines is set up for a similar punishing test, it will play to DeChambeau’s strengths.
And if he can keep his Cobra driver reasonably straight, he’ll have a big advantage hitting short irons into typically firm and fast US Open greens at Torrey Pines. Bryson is one of the more intriguing characters in the game and if he can win again this year, he’ll join his new sparring partner, Brooks Koepka, as the only back-to-back US Open winners this century.
Apart from perhaps Pebble Beach, there isn’t a more iconic venue to host the US Open than Torrey Pines.Set on the coastal cliffs outside San Diego, the course offers sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and is named after the native pine that inhabits the area.
Torrey Pines has two 18-hole courses, the North and South, but it is the tougher South course that will host the US Open. It underwent a renovation in 2018 - 19 and is regarded as one of the best courses in the world.
Like Bethpage Black in New York, it’s a public course where anyone can pay the US $200 - $250 green fee and get out for a hit. But it does come on a first-come, first-served basis, especially on weekends when hopefuls begin queuing up on Friday night to be guaranteed at tee time.
The course is a regular stop on the PGA Tour, with the course hosting the Farmers Insurance Open in January, won this year by Patrick Reed.
The US Open is the major Phil Mickelson needs to complete his career grand slam and after his shock US PGA win, anything looks possible for the in-form 50-year-old. Phil will have a truckload of home-town support in San Diego this year but he has what can be best described as a complicated relationship with his national Open.
He has finished second six times but it was his runner-up finish at Winged Foot in 2006 that hurt the most. Holding a one-stroke lead on the 18 th hole, Phil needed a par to win or a bogey to get into a playoff. But after bouncing his drive off the roof of a hospitality tent after hitting an enormous slice, he made a calamitous double bogey to lose by a stroke to Australian Geoff Ogilvy.
Fast forward to the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, and Phil caused outrage when he deliberately hit a moving ball. After rushing his first putt past the hole on the 13 th green in the third round, Phil ran after his ball and hit it back towards the hole before it could trundle down a slope and off the green.
The extraordinary action was widely perceived to be Phil’s protest against Shinnecock’s ultra-fast greens, but he’d only incur a two-shot penalty when many pundits thought he should’ve been disqualified. Prior to winning the US PGA Championship, Phil wasn’t even eligible for a US Open start but in May was granted a special exemption to play what will be his 30 th US Open.
Basking in the afterglow of his US PGA Championship and in playing in front of his home-town fans, will Phil recreate his magic at Torrey Pines?
The USGA are known for having a bit of fun with their US Open pairings and eagle-eyed fans who scan the tee times this year might be able to spot their latest efforts.
In previous years, there has been the ‘big guy’ group made up of heavyweights (Shane Lowry, Brendon De Jonge, Kevin Stadler), a ‘marshmallow’ pairing of short hitters (Jim Furyk, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell) and a bombers group (Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Tony Finau). And there was also a grouping of Ryan Moore, Brian Gay and Fred Couples, with the players’ surnames structured to produce ‘Moore Gay Couples’ on the leaderboard.
The only pairing set in stone will see the defending US Open winner paired with the British Open champion and the winner of the US Amateur. It will result in Bryson DeChambeau playing with Shane Lowry and Tyler Strafaci, which knocks out the tantalising prospect of a Bryson-Brooks showdown in the first two rounds.
BIG, BAD, BROOKS KOEPKA
By all accounts it seems that big, bad, Brooks is back. Koepka’s fightback from knee surgery to finish runner-up at the US PGA Championship was a remarkable result. But there’s a nagging feeling that Brooks circa-2018 would’ve found a way to get the job done.
As a four-time major winner, Brooks Koepka knows how to win on the game’s biggest stages and brings an intimidation factor that few in the game can. But the last couple of times he’s been within striking distance, his killer instinct to step on his rivals’ throats hasn’t come through with the same ferocity.
At Kiawah Island, Koepka’s stoic demeanour in the final round contrasted sharply with Phil Mickelson, whose interaction with the crowd while leading the tournament was lapped up by the fans.
That Koepka shot his worst round of the week on Sunday, even after taking the lead briefly, was a real surprise.The good news for Brooks was that his ball striking was seriously on all week, but it was his putting that let him down - especially in the final two rounds.
If he sorts out his flat stick, Koepka will be hard to beat at Torrey Pines.
And on the subject of Brooks Koepka, it would be remiss not to mention Bryson DeChambeau.The pair’s long history of derision and needle blew up at the PGA Championship, with Bryson lobbing a verbal hand grenade in the background while Brooks was conducting an interview.
The look of disdain on Brooks’ face said it all and it hasn’t simmered down since. Brooks and Bryson have continued to bicker on Twitter, with Bryson saying how much he enjoys ‘living rent free in your (Koepka’s) head’.
At the Memorial tournament, spectators stoked the flames by calling Bryson ‘Brooksie’, with several fans ejected from the tournament. Koepka returned serve by thanking said fans for their support and offering a free carton of booze to anyone who was ejected.
Both Koepka and DeChambeau are previous US Open champions and are expected to be in contention again. Should they be paired together at some stage during the tournament it could become the talking point of the tournament.
Seven Australians are confirmed starters at Torrey Pines, with Jason Day a notable omission.
Day will miss his first major since 2012 after withdrawing from the Memorial Invitational, where he needed a good finish to push into the top 60 players in the world who are guaranteed a spot. It appears that Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman will again be the best hopes of flying the Aussie flag at Torrey Pines.
While no Aussies figured late in the US PGA Championship (Jason Scrivener led the charge finishing equal 23rd, but won’t be playing the US Open), Smith retains the mantle of best-performed Aussie in recent majors. Joining Smith and Leishman are Adam Scott, Matt Jones, Wade Ormsby, Brad Kennedy and Steve Allan.
Ormsby received an invitation through his Asian Tour ranking (from 2019) while Kennedy will play his first US Open, and third major, after winning the Australasian Tour order of merit.
Allan will play his first major since 2010 after winning a spot via an Open qualifier held in Washington. At 47 years old, Allan secured his spot after winning a sudden death 2-for-1 playoff.
He’s still the world no.1 but Dustin Johnson has had a sputtering start to the year.
After missing the cut as defending champion at the Masters in April, DJ also wasn’t involved in the weekend action at Kiawah Island. It was the first time in his career he’s missed cuts in consecutive majors and the game currently seems like a puzzle for the 36-year-old. It seems a lack of consistency is hampering Johnson: he’s making plenty of birdies and eagles but can’t seem to keep bogeys, and worse, off his card.
Johnson made his major debut in the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, where he finished tied for 48 th, but has tended to avoid the regular season stop at Torrey Pines. The Farmers Insurance Open clashes with the European Tour’s Saudi International - an event DJ has played in the last three years, winning twice and finishing second.
Regardless of DJ’s lack of visible form, you can never write off a previous US Open winner, especially after he cast aside a series of farcical events late in his 2016 US Open win at Oakmont.
It wouldn’t be a major without Louis Oosthuizen poking his nose in the frame at some stage, but can the smooth-swinging South African break through at Torrey Pines?
Oosthuizen recorded his fifth runner-up finish in a major at last month’s US PGA Championship, 11 years after he recorded his sole major win at the British Open at St Andrews. He’s got one of the best swings in the game and a mellifluous tempo but it seems like Louis always runs into a player who plays that career-defining shot to deny him a deserved second major title.
The diminutive South African grew up playing on a seaside course, learning how to control shots in the breeze, and it certainly shone through at windy Kiawah Island. If Torrey Pines is buffeted by winds blowing in off the Pacific Ocean it sets up well for the 38-year-old to break his drought.
RORY, RICKY AND RAHM
After winning at Quail Hollow, the Rory-hype machine was rolling into the PGA Championship at Kiawah.
But the Rory McIlroy charge didn’t eventuate and he just scraped into the weekend, eventually finishing tied 49 th in what was a forgettable major.
Contrast that with Ricky Fowler, who tied for eighth at Kiawah after playing the event on an special invitation. It was Fowler’s first top 10 in almost 18 months and although he’s not guaranteed a start at the US Open at this stage, it could be the start of a turnaround for the popular Californian.
Also tied for eighth was Jon Rahm, the Spanish world no.3 who seems to be always in the hunt at majors of late. But golf can be a cruel game where fortunes can change in an instant, as Big Jon unfortunately found out at the Memorial Invitational.
Leading by six shots after the third round, a positive COVID test saw Rahm withdraw from the tournament he would arguably have won. The COVID conundrum cost Rahm upwards of a $1.5 million payday but it will also impact his US Open prep.
A mandatory 14-day quarantine means Rahmbo will only be able to get out on the course on Tuesday, just two days before the start of the tournament. It’s a big blow for one of the world’s in-form players, but as Ricky can attest, golf often rewards those who wait patiently for their time to come.
TIGER AND TORREY 2008
Sadly Tiger Woods won’t be teeing it up at Torrey Pines this year, a course he owned for a long stretch of his career.
Tiger has won eight times at Torrey: seven Farmers Insurance Opens and one historic US Open win in 2008.And from 2005-2008, Tiger wasn’t defeated at Torrey Pines as he notched five straight wins. But out of all his wins, his US Open win at Torrey Pines in 2008 was off the scale.
Playing with a fractured tibia and ruptured ACL Tiger literally beat everyone on one leg. With Rocco Mediate in the clubhouse, Tiger made a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72 nd hole to force a Monday playoff. Then battling extreme pain during the 18-hole Monday playoff against Mediate, Tiger again birdied Torrey Pines’ 18 th hole to extend the playoff again.
A par at the first hole of sudden death was all Tiger needed to win his third US Open and 14 th major, which he’d accomplished by playing 91 holes at Torrey Pines on one leg.
There hasn’t been a US Open playoff since and with the exception of his first Masters win, it was one of the most astonishing performances of Tiger’s career.