LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | The U.S. Open is a hard one to love.
It’s the porcupine of major championships, the one designed to inflict pain, the one that’s as much fun as engine trouble on a dark, lonely road.
Just because this U.S. Open is set at Torrey Pines with its dreamy cliffs and seascapes, it’s still as much about enduring the challenge as embracing it. Like the sound of the fighter jets regularly screaming overhead, it’s harsh and the U.S. Open can happen suddenly.
It’s the U.S. Open way.
If professional golf did this every week, it would disappear quicker than the Super League of soccer. But once a year, it’s great.
Mike Davis, the outgoing CEO of the USGA who is transitioning to the course design business, was recently asked if he planned to build U.S. Open-styled courses.
“It’s fun to set these things up,” Davis said, “but I sure don’t want to play them.”
A number of the 156 players in the field may privately feel the same way.
If this one feels more familiar, it’s because Torrey Pines South is a late January fixture on the PGA Tour schedule, its paragliders and scenic shots recurring in the golf calendar with post-Christmas credit card bills.
It’s been five months since Patrick Reed won the Farmers Insurance Open here, long enough for his rules controversy that week to be replaced by the Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau skirmish and for a furry collar of rough to be grown around the edges of a golf course that’s difficult on its easiest days.
When it all comes together – the U.S. Open has a spotty record in that regard in recent years – there is a boot camp kind of simplicity to it.
Hit the fairways. Hit the greens. Be careful. But not too careful.
Color inside the lines. Keep doing that and see how the picture looks on Sunday afternoon.
Once in a while, the mold is broken. A 22-year old Rory McIlroy shoots 16-under par to win at Congressional. Brooks Koepka makes massive Erin Hills look small. Bryson DeChambeau clubs mighty Winged Foot into submission.
“It’s fair. I’ve heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players.” – Rory McIlroy
This week, at least as Thursday dawns, appears set to be a proper U.S. Open.
“It’s fair,” Rory McIlroy said. “I’ve heard nothing but positive praise from a lot of the players.”
It doesn’t take a great student of history to know those words are like a Beethoven composition to the USGA’s ears, given the relative rarity with which they are spoken. The tone is subject to change once pencils are in hands, tee shots begin to sail sideways and golf balls bury in a tangle of grass just off a putting surface.
Thirteen years ago, Tiger Woods wrote a remarkable chapter in his career story when he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff here, holing that playoff-forcing putt on the 72nd green and doing it with a cracked bone in one leg. If there is a void in this championship, it’s that Woods isn’t here, still recovering from the horrific auto accident he suffered two hours up the road in February. He was sighted in Los Angeles this week, still on crutches, but putting weight on his severely injured right leg.
While Woods recovers in private, no doubt watching from afar, the U.S. Open remains rich with possibilities.
From the hope-springs-eternal department, a story this week revealed that more money has been bet on Phil Mickelson in this event than on all of the other players combined, in all likelihood making it a good week to be a bookie.
What Mickelson – who celebrated his 51st birthday Wednesday – did in winning the PGA Championship last month at Kiawah Island remains as stunning today as it was when it happened. To think that will happen again this week in the one major that Mickelson hasn’t won is cotton candy for the imagination.
Who doesn’t like cotton candy?
Mickelson doesn’t care for the South Course, at least not since Rees Jones got his hands on it 20 years ago. He spent part of last week practicing at the South Course, hoping to chip away at his stubborn resistance to the place. Maybe whatever breakthrough he found prior to the PGA Championship still has him in its spell and he wins in his hometown.
That’s what people hoping to see Koepka and DeChambeau grouped together the first two days will have to do. The USGA did the right thing ignoring the temptation to put the bro feud in high-def but if they had, it would almost certainly have been a comedown.
They weren’t going to arm wrestle on the first tee. Maybe one would give the other a grudging nod. Move along now.
Think how much more fun it could be if they were paired on the weekend and in contention. That’s your Player Impact Program right there.
Strangely, this U.S. Open begins with the first- and second-ranked players in the world – Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas – chasing what’s gone missing, the expectations around them as murky as the marine layer that comes and goes here.
It’s easy to get the sense that this could be Jon Rahm’s week, golf karma being what it is. Two weeks ago, he’s devastated at the Memorial because of COVID. Now, he’s playing a U.S. Open at a spot he likes so much he proposed to his wife on a nearby hiking trail.
Rory McIlroy doesn’t sound like he’s convinced he’s sharp enough. It can be fairly assumed Xander Schauffele will make another appearance on the leaderboard. The question is whether this is the major he finishes off, adding another chapter to San Diego golf history.
Late Sunday afternoon, about the time the sun starts to sink over the Pacific, someone will have won this U.S. Open.
Getting there is the hard part.
Like a porcupine, the U.S. Open is beautiful in its own way.
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