A major season unlike any seen before will have its third leg this week, as the U.S. Open commences at the notoriously difficult Torrey Pines Golf Course. The San Diego-area venue was the site of a classic the last time it held the event, with Tiger Woods ousted Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff despite a badly-injured knee.
Unfortunately, Tiger’s most recent leg injuries, sustained in a harrowing February car accident, will prevent him from attempting to capture his fourth U.S. Open and 16th major championship overall.
Among those who will be in attendance this week, however, is 51-year-old legend Phil Mickelson, whose major championship career was believed to have perished until he somehow triumphed at last month’s PGA Championship. A win at Torrey Pines would complete the career grand slam in the most compelling way, as he has finished runner-up six times in this particular major.
We will admit it: we did not have Phil ranked at Kiawah Island, but that is a mistake we are unwilling to make again. He could not be less under-the-radar. Attempting to spoil the story is the best field in professional golf. Who will come out on top this week? The following is the 25 we see as most likely to achieve golf immortality:
25. Robert MacIntyre
Fact: 100% of 2021 major champions have had a nine-letter surname beginning with “M” (sorry, Molinari brothers and Collin Morikawa). Aside from Masters Champ Matsuyama and PGA Champ Mickelson, two players in the U.S. Open field fit that bill.
One of them is Italy’s Guido Migliozzi, who has actually coming into Torrey Pines off back-to-back runner-up finishes in Europe. But while the world No. 103 is a name to watch in the future, the fact that he has never played a PGA Tour event leads us to the 24-year-old Scotland native MacIntyre, who finished T12 two months ago at The Masters, where he led the field in birdies, carding at least five in all four rounds.
24. Corey Conners
A 29-year-old from Canada, Conners is having easily his best season on Tour with seven top 10s in 23 starts – one more than he had the previous three seasons combined.
Conners was a contender at The Masters, finishing T8, and also posted a third place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a seventh-place finish at THE PLAYERS Championship. He ranks in the top 10 on Tour in both driving accuracy and greens in regulation, and has been phenomenal tee-to-green in general.
He looks much improved from the version of himself that missed the cut after a second-round 76 at Winged Foot in September.
23. Abraham Ancer
Ancer is still looking for his first Tour win, but has shown a penchant for contending, with ten straight results of T26 or better.
Precision is the 30-year-old Mexican’s game, as he ranks third on Tour in driving accuracy and 12th in greens in regulation. The recent history of U.S. Open champions show a clear advantage to the long-bombers, something nobody will ever accuse Ancer of being.
However, he is too consistent and too well-rounded to stay out of the winner’s circle much longer. He just keeps knocking.
22. Tommy Fleetwood
The 30-year-old Brit is trending in the wrong direction in this event. He was solo-fourth in 2017 and finished runner-up to Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock the following year, but has gone T65, CUT in the past two U.S. Opens.
Fleetwood is no stranger to big stage leaderboards, but there might be nobody who is more likely to follow up a great round with an abysmal one. It is troubling that he has posted at least one round of 75 or worse in eight consecutive Tour starts. He makes himself a difficult bet.
21. Justin Rose
The lone major championship win of the 40-year-old Rose’s illustrious golf career came at the U.S. Open, where he took the 2013 edition at Merion by two strokes over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day.
Rose got off to a blazing start at The Masters in April, but followed up that Thursday 65 with two 72s and a 74 to finish solo-seventh. A T8 at the PGA Championship though, puts him among just three players to post top 10s in both 2021 majors. He can be depended on to place, but to win? His Sunday game leaves a bit to be desired.
20. Rory McIlroy
Given the dominance he has flashed throughout his career, it seems crazy that Rory has been sitting on four major victories since the 2014 PGA Championship.
Yet, that is where we are, as the 32-year-old from Northern Ireland has 12 top 10s in majors since his last victory. We were tricked into thinking he was back when he snapped a two-season winless drought at last month’s Wells Fargo Championship, but a T49 at the PGA Championship included no under-par rounds, more than a bit of a surprise given that he had won the last major held at Kiawah Island by eight strokes.
The talent seems to still be there, but the moxie is MIA for the 2011 U.S. Open winner.
19. Tyrrell Hatton
A T2 at last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree was an especially welcome result for Hatton, whose recent performance had not reflected his top 10 world ranking.
The 29-year-old runs extremely hot-and-cold, so despite the weak field at the Palmetto, his result should not be ignored, particularly the part where he gained a whopped 14.5 strokes on the field tee-to-green.
Hatton is the kind of shotmaker that thrives at Torrey Pines. The question with Hatton is, can he keep himself composed when he starts to leak oil? Many question whether he has the temperament to win on the biggest stage.
18. Patrick Cantlay
The 29-year-old from Long Beach was the prime beneficiary of Jon Rahm’s COVID-19 withdraw at The Memorial Tournament two weeks ago. In the blink of an eye, Cantlay went from six strokes back to co-leader, and while many will refuse to recognize his victory, it was still impressive that he was able to re-focus and outduel one of the Tour’s brightest young stars in Collin Morikawa.
Prior to his second career triumph at Muirfield Village, Cantlay was in a five-start stumble where he had four missed cuts (THE PLAYERS and The Masters among them) and a T23.
Now the leader in the FedExCup standings, the UCLA product hopes to fare better in his post-victory major than Rory McIlroy did when he followed a drought-smashing win at the Wells Fargo Championship with a disappointing T49 at the PGA Championship.
17. Paul Casey
The 43-year-old from England has posted 11 top 10s in his major championship career, without a victory, but only one of those was a the U.S. Open, posting a T10 in 2007 where he still finished 11-over.
We are not holding that too much against Casey though, who is playing arguably the best golf of his career the past ten months. He has eight top-10s worldwide in the 2021 calendar year,and in his last PGA Tour start, he was T4 at the PGA Championship. His elite iron game makes him impossible to ignore at Torrey Pines.
16. Jordan Spieth
The 2015 U.S. Open winner at Chambers Bay, Spieth has put himself firmly back on the map in 2021, putting an end to an exhausting four-year winless drought, and posting eight top 10s in his last 12 starts. He is consistently flashing his past brilliance, but it is obvious that he is still dealing with scar tissue on Sundays, having squandered several 54-hole leads, including three weeks ago at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
It will be important for Spieth to get off to a good start at Torrey Pines, a place he has never been able to figure out. His sole finish inside the top 30 at the Farmers Insurance Open was a T19 where he went 9-under in his one round on the North Course. All four rounds this week are being played on the South.
15. Justin Thomas
The world No. 2 has been off since winning THE PLAYERS Championship in March, failing to post a single top-10 in seven starts since, and is coming into Torrey Pines on a CUT, T40, T42 funk.
Ten bogeys on the weekend at The Memorial Tournament two weeks ago is troubling, and Thomas has been extraordinarily streaky within his rounds. He was T8 at Winged Foot in the most recent U.S. Open, leading the field in birdies, but also carding 15 bogeys and three double bogeys.
14. Scottie Scheffler
Overdue for his first career Tour victory, the 24-year-old Texan fell just short in his most recent start, finishing solo-third at The Memorial, where he co-led the field in birdies.
All six of his 2021 top 20s have come since February, and he should be extra motivated at this year’s U.S. Open, given that he was forced out of the last one after testing positive for COVID shortly before.
Scheffler could become the first player to notch his first Tour win at the U.S. Open since Graeme McDowell accomplished that feat at Pebble Beach in 2010.
13. Dustin Johnson
The world No. 1 has looked far from it in 2021, becoming the first world rankings leader to miss the cut in the season’s first two majors since 1997. He appeared to perhaps been turning a corner when he took the 36-hole co-lead at last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree, but he was over par on Saturday, and when he did enough on Sunday to get within one of the lead, he carded a triple-bogey on 16, leading to an underwhelming T10.
Still, it was his first top 10 since February, and his best is still the world’s best. The U.S. Open has been good to DJ, with five finishes of T6 or better in the past seven editions, including a victory at Oakmont in 2016.
Can he really be called a sleeper? By the pure definition, probably not, but his recent struggles have largely taken the spotlight off him.
12. Viktor Hovland
Our pick to win the PGA Championship was a dud, as the immensely talented 23-year-old from Norway outed himself from contention with a pair of 75s on Friday and Saturday.
Hovland is unlikely to go majorless long, given his exceptional amateur career and the proficiency he has already shown as a pro, with two wins, two runner-ups, and three third-places among just 38 starts.
Could the U.S. Open be his first? He set the amateur scoring record at Pebble Beach in 2019, when his 4-under final score was good for 12th. He was T13 at Winged Foot in September.
11. Patrick Reed
The world No. 8 is likely to be a popular pick to win this week, given that he took January’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines by five strokes.
History tells us, though, that the USGA will have this course barely resembling the venue Reed dominated five months ago. That is not to say that Reed will be a non-factor; the former Masters champ has finished T13 or better in three of the past four U.S. Opens, and has finished T17 or better in six straight major starts.
His magic with the putter makes him a threat anywhere.
10. Hideki Matsuyama
No matter what the 29-year-old Japanese star does the rest of this season, it will be considered an enormous success after his breakthrough major championship win at April’s Masters.
Matsuyama remains one of the Tour’s most pure ball strikers, and now that he has actually triumphed on the major stage, he should be incredibly feared this week.
However, he has yet to emerge from his post-Masters funk, with results of T39, T23, and T62 in his three starts since, with the latter coming at the Memorial Tournament, where he has shown in the past.
Hopes of a Hideki Slam stayed in tact through two rounds at the PGA Championship, as he sat in fourth place at the halfway point, but absolutely imploded on Saturday’s back nine, going from 2-under through 10 holes to 3-over through 14, limping to a 76 that dashed his hopes.
As usual, the question with him is whether he can make just enough putts to stay in contention. His most recent start was not encouraging: he lost nearly seven(!) strokes to the field with his putter on Saturday and losing an additional three on Sunday.
9. Collin Morikawa
The 24-year-old Cal-Berkeley product has already asserted himself as a big game threat, with the 2020 PGA Championship among four titles Morikawa has already claimed in his short time on Tour.
He very nearly added a fifth two weeks ago, but was unable to shake off Patrick Cantlay in a playoff at The Memorial. His iron game is flawless: he leads the Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: approach-the-green, and greens in regulation.
Morikawa needs to stay dialed-in with those irons, because he does himself few favors with his putter. He missed the cut at Winged Foot in September after opening the week with a 76.
8. Phil Mickelson
The San Diego native has just one top 20 in 16 starts this season, a victory at a little event known as the PGA Championship.
The first winner in major championship history to have Champions Tour eligibility, Mickelson, who turns 51 on Wednesday, broke the 53-year record of Julius Boros last month at Kiawah Island.
Boros was 48 when he won the 1968 PGA. It was believed by most that Phil’s last good chance to be the sixth golfer in PGA Tour history to complete the career grand slam went out the window last September at Winged Foot.
Now? He is supremely confident while playing with house money. Mickelson’s best U.S. Open result was a runner-up finish in 1999… and in 2002… and in 2004, 2006, 2009, and 2013.
7. Will Zalatoris
The 24-year-old has been THE breakout performer of the 2021 season, collecting seven top 10 finishes on the season, including a solo runner-up finish at The Masters and a T8 at the PGA Championship. He was also T6 at the U.S. Open last September, making it three top 10s in just four career major championship starts.
That first Tour victory feels imminent for Zalatoris, who was also T7 at Torrey Pines in January. He is third on Tour in strokes gained: approach-the-green and seventh in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
6. Bryson DeChambeau
The reigning U.S. Open won by six at Winged Foot in September, the only player in that field to finish under par. DeChambeau leads the Tour in strokes gained: total, despite pedestrian tournament results since finishing T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship in March.
His otherworldly length will again be on display at Torrey Pines, but what is drawing the most attention to him lately is his meme-worthy feud with Brooks Koepka.
Is it too much of a distraction? Spectators were removed two weeks ago at Muirfield Village for yelling “Brooksie!” and the like off the tees.
5. Louis Oosthuizen
Louis did what Louis does at last month’s PGA Championship, contending late into Sunday to finish co runner-up, his fifth second-place finish at a major since his sole win, at the 2010 Open Championship.
The South African also finished third at September’s U.S. Open, one season after finishing T7 at the Pebble Beach edition. The 38-year-old undoubtedly has the temperment to contend again this week, as his short game might be the best in the world at the moment.
Oosty leads the Tour in strokes gained: putting, and is coming into Torrey Pines off four straight finishes of T18 or better.
4. Brooks Koepka
Yes, his knee was a huge question mark, but we should know better when it comes to majors: Brooks just shows up. The 2017 and 2018 U.S. Open winner finished T2 at Kiawah Island, and then took The Memorial Tournament off before a surprising missed cut at last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree.
With eight top 10s in his last 11 major starts, we have to expect Koepka to make another run this week. He was forced to miss the fall edition of the event due to injury, but is on a WIN-WIN-2 tear in his last three U.S. Opens. He loves when the course is brutal, and it does not get more brutal than a U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
3. Xander Schauffele
The world No. 6 has made four career starts at the U.S. Open. He finished in the top six of all four.
What might get mentioned a time or two, if Xander again gets into contention, is that he was born in La Jolla, California, the home of a golf course known as Torrey Pines.
The San Diego University product winning would be very popular, especially as he has been unable to quite snatch that first major victory, despite many close calls.
Schauffele has the Tour’s second-best scoring average, and has finished T18 or better in 13 of 16 starts on the season. He looks prime to end a winless streak that dates back to January of 2019.
2. Shane Lowry
The reigning Open Champion Golfer of the Year for the past two years, the 34-year-old from Ireland is back in some of his best form, with four top-10s since March, including a T4 at the PGA Championship, and a T6 two weeks ago at The Memorial.
Obviously, Lowry can win on this stage, having taken his major championship in a blowout. He even contended at a U.S. Open once, holding a four-stroke, 54-hole lead in 2016 at Oakmont.
In six of his last eight rounds on Tour, he has gained at least 2.3 strokes on the field tee-to-green, well-illustrating how dialed-in he has been.
50-1 odds for someone like him feels like a steal.
1. Jon Rahm
Rahm made international headlines two weeks ago at The Memorial, where a positive COVID-19 test forced him to withdraw minutes after he had captured a six-shot 54-hole lead.
It cost him what felt like a certain $1.7 million pay day, and no matter how rich a player is, that kind of money is far from nothing.
How could he make up for it? The $2.3 million first prize this week is a good start.
The world No. 3 is the current odds-on favorite to win, and if he is even a fraction of what he was at Muirfield Village, he could very well make this a boring tournament. Rahm’s 10 top 10s on the season leads the Tour, and he also boasts the No. 1 scoring average.
Combined with the fact that he finished in the top 10 in both majors held this year, including a T5 at The Masters when his first child was born just days before, AND his four top 7s (one win) in five career starts at Torrey Pines, picking Rahm to win his first career major this week feels TOO easy.
We’re going to do it anyway.
Next Five: Branden Grace, Joaquin Niemann, Tony Finau, Matt Fitzpatrick, Cameron Smith