John Bodenhamer said it best on Wednesday. “We can’t wait to get balls in the air,” the USGA’s senior managing director of Championships remarked as he assessed the preparations for the 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Southern California native Sahith Theegala, who was the runner-up in the 2015 Junior Worlds at Torrey Pines, has the honor of hitting the first shot on hole No. 1 of the South Course at 6:45 a.m. PDT Thursday, and 155 players will follow by letting it fly, a sight far prettier, we gotta say, than those hang gliders in the air off the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
This will be the 85th USGA championship played in the Golden State and the 14th U.S. Open, following Pebble Beach Golf Links just two years ago, where Gary Woodland triumphed. Torrey Pines is hosting its second National Open, and nothing much of distinction or historical significance occurred in the first in 2008. Californian Tiger Woods was the winner, his third U.S. Open victory, and people still make a big deal out of it like he beat everyone with one arm tied behind his back.
OK, yeah, he did have a broken left leg and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and he had to endure 91 holes on that compromised limb before subduing Rocco Mediate in a playoff, and it was arguably the grittiest major championship win in history. But other than that, who really remembers it?
Outgoing CEO Mike Davis said if this year’s championship is only half as exciting as that one, he’d buy all of San Diego a drink. Actually, he said a U.S. Open half as exciting would still be a rousing success. He’d be right.
So, let’s get those balls in the air. Here are three things to know as the pills go flying.
A new (old) wrinkle is being thrown at the field this week. No, it’s not the thick rough off the fairways. The USGA has been growing it healthy in the outer playing areas since Bob Jones, Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour were high-stepping it in the 1926 championship at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio.
But what differentiates this year’s setup from the 2008 championship at Torrey Pines – and several other recent editions – is the copious amounts of greenside kikuyugrass that awaits errant approach shots. Chipping areas, shmipping areas, you might say. Recovery shots from the sticky kikuyu, which Bodenhamer likened to “hitting through leather,” might require additional recovery shots. That should be fun on the 7,652-yard, par-71 layout.
Dustin Johnson, the 2016 champion, couldn’t make up his mind which would harder on scoring, the rough bordering the fairways or the putting surfaces. Jordan Spieth said spotters would have their work cut out for them this week just finding a ball that might miss the green by a few feet.
“I don't remember the rough being as thick around the greens in 2008,” said Lee Westwood, who finished third behind Woods and Mediate. “I remember it being as thick off the tee. In fact, I think it may even be a little bit lighter this year in patches. But, certainly around the greens, it's going to be an extreme test.”
Hey, it’s fairways and greens, baby. Fairways and greens.
Eyes on Phil
There always will be eyes on Phil Mickelson at a U.S. Open, given that his quest for the career Grand Slam can only be complete with a victory in the national championship, a frustration deepened by coming agonizingly close a record six times with runner-up finishes. The fact that he is playing near his home in his native San Diego brings extra intrigue. Throw in his victory in last month’s PGA Championship, and that cements the interest factor.
It goes without saying that getting off to a decent start is important, but in Lefty’s case it’s paramount. An opening 70 in the PGA at Kiawah Island paved the way to getting in contention, and then, eventually, to victory. It also was unusual. Mickelson owns a 72.63 first-round scoring average on the PGA Tour, which ranks 198th out of 212 golfers. And that includes an opening 64 at Wells Fargo and a 69 at the Masters. He has fallen too far behind too soon to be competitive.
In the U.S. Open, he last began the championship with a sub-par score in 2015 at Chambers Bay. That didn’t end very well (T-64), but if you look at all those second-place finishes, each one started with a round at par or better.
There are no coincidences.
If Tiger Woods can win the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on a broken leg, a fact of which we’re fairly certain even life in other solar systems is aware, then Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth are your pre-championship favorites.
Granted, they’d be favorites anyway. Koepka won back-to-back U.S. Open titles in 2017-18 and prioritizes major championships the way Michael Jordan used to prioritize Game 7s. Spieth was the 2015 champion, and his game is back on the upswing after a few below-par seasons.
The question we have about the two Americans as we head into the opening round is, can they play the “beware the injured golfer” card as well as Woods did 13 years ago?
Koepka is still far from 100 percent after undergoing knee surgery in March, and while he nearly won the PGA Championship in May, Kiawah Island didn’t have the kind of tee-to-green rough that is about to menace the field at Torrey Pines. The man is strong, but with a compromised knee one has to wonder how aggressively he can swing from the thick stuff.
Spieth somehow jammed his heel at home in Dallas while carrying his clubs. He appears to be walking without duress, but his question is more about mechanics. He has struck the ball awfully well this year, but even a tiny health nuisance can cause swing issues.
Wonder if they have Tiger on speed dial.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.