So indelibly inked into the fabric of Torrey Pines is the name of Tiger Woods that not having the last US Open winner there for the 121st edition of America’s most important Major is akin to watching Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
It was on the famed municipal course outside San Diego that Tiger won seven PGA Tour titles and a marathon 2008 US Open, playing with two stress fractures and torn cruciate ligament just days before the knee surgery that cut off his year in June.
Who can forget that US Open which stretched to 91 holes deep into a Monday afternoon after Woods and Rocco Mediate finished deadlocked after 72 holes and still level after 18 more in the Monday play-off?
Finally it was done at the 19th extra hole and so was the pain-racked Woods who was only occasionally the same force again even though he performed one more near-miracle at the 2019 Masters, his first Major since Torrey 11 years earlier, and won 17 more times.
One of those 17 came at Torrey Pines in 2013 which brought his score to eight on the Californian course where he played much of his early golf. Will he win any more on this demanding layout, this week playing at 7652 yards, par 71? It’s odds-against but never rule out a genius!
One memory of how difficult the South course was in 2008 relates to the scoring: Woods and Mediate were the only two to beat the par of 284, finishing one under with Lee Westwood third on level par. It was way back to other marquee names. Past champions Ernie Els and Retief Goosen were +5, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson +6 and sharing 18th place.
This week Mickelson is the headline act as winner of the last Major, the US PGA, and is a man on a mission to join A-listers Nicklaus, Woods, Player, Sarazen and Hogan as career Slam achievers.
As a six-time US Open runner-up playing in his home city, Mickelson was a triple Torrey champion back in the day before Rees Jones toughened up the course to make it worthy of hosting an Open. Birthday boy (51 on Wednesday) will love being the centre of attention and having crowds to banter with, even though spectators will be limited to 10,000 a day.
There’s no doubt that the new, chiselled, diet-conscious Lefty, a stone lighter, deserves to be rated an all-time great and who knows how many more Majors than his current haul of six he would have racked up if Tiger had not been around.
As a lifetime fan, I shall be rooting for him but back-to-back Major winners are a rarity. Nicklaus arrived at Muirfield in 1972 on the back of winning the Masters and US Open.
Tiger did it more than once – he even won four in a row but not in the same year – and Padraig Harrington did it in 2008.
Torrey has been given a further revamp for this year’s renewal and reports of “brutal” rough suggest the USGA has no intention of making it any easier than it was in 2008. A sunny, dry week will guarantee fast-rolling fairways and slippery greens.
Two of only three par fives are over 600 yards, two back-nine fours over 500; those who beat Joe Par will be in with a shout come Sunday afternoon. The 18-hole play-off idea was ditched three years ago. In its place a cumulative two-hole shootout, then sudden-death if still level.
Mickelson apart, who are this year’s prime candidates? Jon Rahm would be a fairytale winner after leading Memorial by six after 54 holes and then having to withdraw after his latest Covid test came back positive.
The Spaniard had no symptoms but the obligatory ten-day isolation has been a major block to his preparation. His imposed break ended in time for a couple of practice rounds at Torrey, the course where he spectacularly made his American breakthrough in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open.
Positive mental associations with a place always carry weight and subsequent Torrey finishing positions of fifth, second and seventh augment his claim. Nobody has stronger credentials. Rahm must be the best golfer not to have won a Major.
Patrick Reed won this year’s Farmers and by five shots but remember that only three rounds were played on the South.
The other was on the far-easier North, which partially explains why Justin Rose shot 21 under in 2019 while Read (14 under) and 2020 champion Marc Leishman (15 under) found plenty of birdies. They will be in much shorter supply this week.
The USGA’s examination aims to identify the best player in the 156-runner field and the 2008 result, in achieving exactly that, will have pleased those who set the test.
Reed, 1-6-13 on the last three visits, must go well. As winner of the 2018 Masters he has already shown a big-occasion game and attitude.
San Diego native Xander Schauffele, just a shot behind Reed here in January, has a brilliant each-way record at the US Open, finishing 5-6-3-5 in four attempts and also arrives in fair form – third at the Masters and 11th at Memorial.
He is not great at closing the deal and needs a good putting week to bag his first Major. That last fifth place came at Winged Foot in the US Open rearranged for September, the one where Bryson DeChambeau bludgeoned his rivals and that historic course into submission.
Everyone got very excited about DeChambeau taking golf to a new level with his 370-yard drives but in winning by six it was more to do with the putter than the big stick. Even the bulked-up version of the “mad scientist” will have trouble extricating himself from Torrey’s ferocious rough.
Justin Thomas is another whose putting is causing backers grief while Dustin Johnson didn’t look much like the world No. 1 when he fell to pieces over the last six holes at Congaree on Sunday, dropping from third to a share of tenth.
DJ fans may see this first top-ten since February as encouraging after previous flops but that was not the strongest field and he was let down by both driver and putter. It is his wonderfully long, straight driving that has got Johnson to No. 1 but I didn’t see enough of that to merit an investment.
Fair play, DJ has a terrific US Open record – winner in 2016, helped by 54-hole leader Shane Lowry’s collapse, and second, third, fourth and sixth on four other occasions – and he may well prove me wrong but he is not on my shopping list.
I’m expecting a big European presence with new daddy Rahm and the two newly-weds Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood going particularly well. Hatton’s first tournament since a chaotic wedding day in North Carolina resulted in a big upturn in form and Sunday’s share of second place, a shot behind 45/1 winner Garrick Higgo, could not have been better timed.
If he’d putted as well as the winner, Hatton would have had that second US victory as driving and iron play were first class. The putter is a very important part of who Hatton is and we may see a different one on parade this week.
Westwood, who married his long-time fiancée and part-time caddie Helen Storey in Las Vegas, was only a shot out of that 2008 US Open play-off at Torrey and the Worksop Wonder posted back-to-back second places at Bay Hill and Sawgrass in March. At 48, he has Mickelson’s example to drive him if Helen doesn’t and his straight driving could be a big asset.
Harris English, pipped by Jason Day at Torrey in a 2015 play-off, was going to be on my list until he lost his driving and his putting stroke in a car-crash of a final round at the Palmetto on Sunday. I wouldn’t trust him with a dud fiver after that. Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama has a good US Open record (2-16-21-17 the last four) but two Majors in the same year is a big ask.
Jordan Spieth’s suspect driving will be put under pressure and Brooks Koepka’s dismal missed cut last week takes him off my short-list. He is involved in a long-standing spat with DeChambeau that has turned toxic and that won’t help his concentration. Let’s hope the crowd behaves.
1pt Si Woo Kim (4.13pm three-ball) @ 7/5
1pt Adam Scott (9.25pm three-ball) @ 7/5
2pts win Phil Mickelson (Top left-handed player) @ 3/1
1pt win Adam Scott (Top Australian player) @ 5/2
It’s the late, late show for punters with the two key marquee US Open threeballs, one involving favourite Jon Rahm, the other Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, not likely to finish until 2.30 in the morning.
Both games tee off at 1.36 local time which, with the eight-hour time difference for California, makes it 9.36pm here. Sky Sports will be with them to the end in their marathon coverage but will we? Perfect for insomniacs but not ideal for early birds.
Rahm is with Patrick Reed and Marc Leishman off the first tee, Rory and DJ with Justin Rose off the 10th and both go into the “too difficult” file.
Threeballs are the hardest market to punt on but often impossible to resist. The two suggested bets are Si Woo Kim to beat Kevin Na and Bernd Wiesberger at 4.13 and Adam Scott to be too consistent for Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson at 9.25.
Kim, ninth at Memorial last time out and winner of the American Express in the first mainland tournament in January, is a big-occasion player who placed ninth at the Players and 12th at the Masters.
Scott has good stats at Torrey Pines and was runner-up to Rose there two years ago whereas Bubba’s record in this Major is dire (five missed cuts in the last seven) and Sergio made early exits from the first two Majors.
It should be a decent week for Scott who is fancied to edge course winner Leishman for Top Aussie honours. He’s a 5-2 shot with Fitzdares.
No prizes for guessing who will carry the biggest crowd with him on the morning shift. It has to be local hero Phil Mickelson who looks worth a punt at 3/1 to finish Top Lefty in a tight five-runner contest. Garrick Higgo’s surprise weekend victory in the Palmetto makes him a serious rival but he doesn’t have Mickelson’s course knowledge and little experience of Majors.
Aggressive young Scot Robert MacIntyre probably rates a bigger danger as he is already proven on the big stages, having finished 12th at the Masters. He is the outsider of the quintet at 11/2 but if first-day results at Royal Ascot are anything to go by, outsiders are having a good time!