Undeniably a tournament that is more fun to watch than actually play, the third week in June marks the USGA’s annual obsession with making the world’s best golfers wish they had picked up a different sport, or became accountants.
More officially, it is called the U.S. Open.
It has always been a major with few red numbers, but giving the USGA Torrey Pines Golf Club to toy with just feels unfair.
The last time the San Diego-area venue hosted this event, the WINNING score was just 1-under-par, with Tiger Woods needing 19 Monday holes to survive the carnage. He clipped an unrelenting Rocco Mediate, but at the cost of the next two majors, which he was forced to miss due to the knee injury he suffered here.
Unfortunately, Tiger will be missing this edition due to injuries sustained in a February car accident. However, the field is still plenty strong and plenty intriguing. Heck, a 50-year-old won the last major. In 2021, anything can happen.
Among the storylines to watch most closely are the following:
U.S. Open Storylines
1. DeChambeau’s Defense
With the 2020 U.S. Open being pushed from June to September, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USGA had three extra months to make Winged Foot Golf Club extra diabolical. They succeed… for 143 of the 144 players in the field.
Bryson DeChambeau posted Sunday’s only under-par round, a 3-under 67, to cap off a championship performance that saw only him finish in red figures, at 6-under. His first major championship was a six-stroke romp over 21-year-old Matthew Wolff. DeChambeau actually trailed Wolff by two through 54 holes, but snagged the solo lead on the fifth hole and never relinquished.
DeChambeau now arrives at Torrey Pines, hoping to become the next back-to-back U.S. Open champion.
Since that win, which was the seventh of the 27-year-old’s career, DeChambeau added an eighth win, taking March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Currently fifth in the world rankings, he has six top 10s in 14 2021 starts, with the two aforementioned victories, in addition to a T3 at THE PLAYERS Championship, the week after winning the Arnold Palmer.
Nothing about DeChambeau’s length and power look remotely mortal, but his results have dropped off since THE PLAYERS. In those last six starts, he has four results of 38th or worse, with a T18 at The Memorial two weeks ago. The other was an impressive T9 at the Wells Fargo Championship, where he flew from Charlotte to Dallas after believing he had missed the cut, only to need to charter a late flight back.
As usual, his game has been well-rounded, as he ranks no worse than 54th in any of the six strokes gained categories. He leads the Tour in strokes gained: off-the-tee and strokes gained: total, and is third in strokes gained: tee-to-green. Only Patrick Cantlay has accumulated more FedExCup points.
If Bryson is going to accomplish a successful championship defense, he will not only need to play better than he has recently, but he may need to drown out distractions, mainly a four-time major distraction in sudden rival Brooks Koepka.
The two have traded barbs on social media, mainly with Koepka as the aggressor. They have had tension in the past, but it was accelerated when a clip aired of Brooks rolling his eyes as DeChambeau walked by in an interview. The feud has reached the point where spectators had to be removed from The Memorial for yelling “Brooksie!” at DeChambeau. Koepka offered those spectators beer.
2. The Phil Phactor
Last month’s PGA Championship closed with surreal shots of Tour legend Phil Mickelson being mobbed by the crowd at the 18th hole, as he put the finishing touches on a two-stroke victory of Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.
At 50 years of age, Mickelson broke the 53-year record for oldest major champion, set by 48-year-old Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA Championship.
Despite Mickelson’s five major titles among 44 career PGA Tour wins, the championship was nowhere in the realm of expected. Phil had recently fallen out of the top 100 of the OWGR for the first time since 1993, and had come into the PGA Championship, held at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, in mostly awful form with nothing better than a T21 in his previous 17 starts.
He had even played in three Champions Tour events, winning two of them, and it seemed as though Phil was going to ride off into the sunset, possibly never contending in a Tour event again.
That belief could not have been more wrong. And the added confidence and momentum could not be coming at a better time.
Mickelson has completed three of the four legs of the career grand slam, agonizingly finishing runner-up at the U.S. Open six(!) times (1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2013).
If he pulls off the back-to-back majors, he will become just the sixth player to win all four majors, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods.
Mickelson had fallen all the way to 116th in the OWGR, but arrives at Torrey Pines ranked 30th. And not that he was going to be short on fanfare regardless, but it is worth noting that he’s a San Diego native.
3. Trouble at the Top
The Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) gives an objective measure of a player’s performance over the past 24 months. It has rarely been more apparent that it goes back a considerable amount of time than it has been lately, as the No. 1 and No. 2 players barely look like top 100 players over the past three months.
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson elevated to that position when he won last August’s The Northern Trust by 11 strokes. Johnson built up a huge cushion in the following months, adding two more wins – including the 2020 Masters, two runner-ups, and four other top 11 finishes in a stretch running through a T8 at February’s Genesis Invitational.
The stretch catalyzed a landslide PGA Tour Player of the Year run and a FedExCup championship.
However, beginning with a T54 at February’s WGC-Workday Championship At The Concession, DJ has been well out of form. In his last eight starts, he has not finished better than T10, and by missing the cut at both The Masters, where he was the defending champion, and the PGA Championship, he became the first No. 1 since 1997 to miss the cut at the year’s first two majors.
It looked like he was on the verge of righting the ship at last week’s Palmetto Championship At Congaree, held in his home state of South Carolina. He snagged a share of the 36-hole lead, but fell back with a Saturday 73.
He got himself back to within a stroke of the lead on Sunday’s back nine, but triple-bogeyed the par 4 16th and had to settle for a T10.
DJ was the winner of the 2016 U.S. Open at brutally difficult Oakmont Country Club, and has added a solo-third and a T6 since. He has finished sixth or better in five of the past seven editions.
Things have only been marginally better for world No. 2 Justin Thomas, if at all. The 27-year-old Alabama product vaulted into the second position after his victory at THE PLAYERS Championship in March. He won by a stroke over Lee Westwood.
Since then, Thomas has not come close to adding a 15th win to his impressive PGA Tour resume. He has struggled badly with his putter, and in his last seven starts, his best result was a T13 at the Valspar Championship.
He was in contention through two rounds at The Masters, but absolutely imploded during the rain delay that essentially won the tournament for Hideki Matsuyama. Thomas missed the cut at the PGA Championship and has gone T40-T42 in two starts since.
Thomas’ lone major championship came at the 2017 PGA Championship, which was nine wins ago. In six U.S. Open starts, he has posted two top 10s, with a high finish of T8 in 2020.
He is not far from a position where golf fans will question whether he should have more major hardware, given his plethora of other accomplishments.
4. The Rahmbo Rally
While No. 1 and No. 2 in the OWGR are having trouble finding their best form as of late, that cannot be said about world No. 3 Jon Rahm. The 26-year-old Spaniard made international news two weeks ago at The Memorial Tournament.
Moments following an absurd 8-under 64 in the third round, which gave him seemingly insurmountable six-stroke lead heading into the final round, Rahm was stopped by tournament officials and informed that he had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day. He was forced to withdraw, which among other things, cost him what appeared to be a sure $1.7 million payday.
Whether Rahm made a mistake not getting vaccinated or not can be debated, it cannot be argued that withdrawing in that position had to feel absolutely terrible.
Fortunately for Rahm, the quarantine period passed before the start of the U.S. Open, and he has reportedly been cleared to play this week.
He is undeniably the best player in the world to not yet win a major, something he is the odds-on favorite to accomplish this week. If he shows the form he had at Muirfield Village, Torrey Pines could become a rout, but it is far from certain that he gets back there so quickly.
At the very least, his quarantine period has made it difficult to prepare.
Rahm is one of three players to finish in the top ten of the first two 2021 majors. He finished T5 at The Masters, despite the distractions arising from his first child being born just days earlier, which he followed up with a strong Sunday at Kiawah Island that allowed him to finish T8 at THe PGA Championship.
In five U.S. Open starts, his best finish was a T3 at the 2019 edition won by Brooks Koepka.
5. Other First-Time Major Winners?
Four of the past five U.S. Open winners, including defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, had not previously won a major championship. With varying levels of uncertainty surrounding a number of the game’s best players, Torrey Pines could very well become the site of the next first-time major winner.
Jon Rahm leads that pack, but is only one among an impressive group of majorless notables:
Xander Schauffele: The World No. 6 was born in La Jolla and starred at San Diego State University. It feels like a safe assumption that he is well-versed on Torrey Pines. Even if the U.S. Open wasn’t happening in his backyard, Xander would be among the favorites given that he has finished T6 or better in all four of his tournament starts. He was solo-fifth in September at Winged Foot, finding Sunday to be especially difficult.
Patrick Cantlay: The World No. 7 was in miserable form when he became the chief beneficiary of Jon Rahm’s controversial withdraw from The Memorial Tournament, the second time Cantlay has won at Jack’s Place. Despite missed cuts at The Masters, THE PLAYERS, and a pedestrian T23 at the PGA Championship, the 29-year-old leads the FedExCup standings. His best U.S. Open result was a T21 as a 19-year-old amateur in 2011. He matched that T21 as a pro in 2019.
Tyrrell Hatton: The amiable Englishman is coming into Torrey Pines with much-needed momentum, snapping out of a recent funk with a T2 at last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree. He re-entered the top 10 of the OWGR in the process. He is very streaky, and even against a mediocre field, that runner-up could be huge.
Viktor Hovland: The 23-year-old from Norway broke Jack Nicklaus’ amateur record two years ago at Pebble Beach, finishing the week at 4-under and a T12. He has run very hot-and-cold this past year, although he figures to consistently contend in these majors.
Tony Finau: The 31-year-old finished runner-up in three straight events worldwide earlier this year, but has seen a decline in his results since. He has finished in the top 10 of four straight major championships.
Will Zalatoris: The 24-year-old American has posted three straight top 10s in majors, while having only made four career major starts. The runner-up to Hideki Matsuyama at The Masters figures to snag his first PGA Tour win in the very near future. He was T6 at Winged Foot in September.
Matthew Wolff: It cannot be forgotten that in DeChambeau’s September rout at Winged Foot, it was actually the then 21-year-old Wolff who held a two-stroke 54-hole lead. The world No. 32 also finished runner-up in his next start, at the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open, but has been an absolute mess since. He was disqualified from The Masters, signing an incorrect scorecard after missing the cut.
Garrick Higgo: The 24-year-old South African won last week’s Palmetto Championship At Congaree, in what was just his second career PGA Tour start. He now has three wins in his last five starts worldwide, making him arguably the hottest player in the field.