As three-time major champion, Padraig Harrington once put it, to be the best golfer at the US Open, “you want to be the most boring golfer around.”
That’ll be no different at the 121st edition of the major championship this week.
Typical of the tournament, the USGA has once again chosen to punish the playing field with another of golf’s most difficult tests; the Torrey Pines Golf Club in San Diego.
Renowned for its dense rough, which looks stickier than a pot of syrup, there’s no doubt we’ll see a few big names succumb to this behemoth of a golf course over the next four days.
But did we expect anything less from a US Open?
The rough at Torrey Pines already looks brutal. ? pic.twitter.com/RlFetmJCzt— Golf Digest (@GolfDigest) June 12, 2021
Hitting fairways will be vital considering the terrifying long rough that surrounds the majority of the fairways on the par 71 course. Players will also have to compete with strong headwinds sweeping in from the North Pacific which are set to pick up as we head into the weekend.
This will be the second time the South Course at Torrey Pines will host a US Open, being known as the course where Tiger Woods won perhaps his most famous major championship in 2008.
Playing for four days with a double stress fracture and an ACL strain in his left leg, Tiger sunk a 12-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to force a playoff against underdog Rocco Mediate. After playing 19-holes the following day, Woods eventually broke away from Mediate to win his third US Open title.
That year missing the fairway proved costly for the playing field, with only 48% of players making greens in regulation from lies outside the fairway.
Things have changed considerably since 2008, with the South Course at Torrey Pines having undergone a $14 million renovation over the past five years. The club has narrowed each of the fairways and lengthened the course by approximately 500 yards to a protracted 7,569 yards. That means it will favour the bigger hitters like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau.
But accuracy will be far more important this week, particularly on the mammoth 515-yard par 4 sixth hole and the 501-yard par 4 12th hole, the two most difficult holes at the 2008 US Open.
A shot to the left or right of the fairways this week could spell disaster. Not simply because getting the ball out of the rough is a near-impossible task, but if a player does manage to clip one out, they’ll still struggle to get any spin on the ball, which won’t bite on Torrey Pines’ rock hard greens.
It’s going to be carnage.
Rolling The Dice
Padraig Harrington might be right about playing boring golf when it comes to the US Open. But as Bryson DeChambeau proved last year, a bit of brawn and taking a gamble can also win you a major championship.
Overpowering the infamous Winged Foot Golf Club, 2020 US Open champion DeChambeau astonished the golfing world with how he outmuscled the course. But it wasn’t all down to his aggression off the tee.
Although Bryson dazzled with some huge drives at the tournament, his vastly overlooked short game was what kept him in the tournament. Ranking in the top three for strokes gained off the tee, for strokes gained in approach play, and for shots gained around the green, DeChambeau’s game completely aligned that week.
Sadly, his reign as the US Open champion may come to an end this week. Consistency and accuracy are what will win the championship at Torrey Pines, and while being ranked as No.1 on tour this year for driving distance, DeChambeaus’ accuracy sits at a lowly 54%.
Bryson’s short game has also left a lot to be desired and has arguably been the reason for much of his poor form of late, failing to break the top thirty in both of this year’s majors while finishing at a lowly T55 at last month’s PGA Championship.
Combining that with the distraction of his ongoing Twitter feud with Brooks Koepka, DeChambeau has the odds stacked against him if he’s set to retain his title.
But it’s not unlike Bryson to perform in the face of adversity.
The Brooks vs Bryson saga has fuelled headlines for months, and the drama could either work as a big distraction or fuel both players to outdo each other on the course. That could also be heightened if they find themselves in the same grouping over the weekend.
Drama aside, there are concerns over whether Brooks Koepka will finish well in this year’s tournament. Despite a strong second-place finish at the PGA Championship, Koepka subsequently had a torrid time failing to make the cut at the Palmetto Championships last week.
But you can never write Brooks off, especially at a US Open. He is notorious for his ability to finish well in major championships and has still carded five top-ten finishes on the PGA tour this year. He is tough to beat when he gets his game going and is currently ranked tenth on tour for strokes gained from tee to green. Whether Brooks plays well, though, will be decided on his putting, which cost him on several occasions at Congaree last week.
Patience And Percentages
Jon Rahm is another player who will challenge for the top spot this week. Overdue a win at a major championship, the world No.3 looks to be one of the big favourites coming into the tournament, having carded three top-ten finishes at the PGA, the Masters, and the Players Championship this year.
His stats also bolster his case to pick up the title. Boasting an average score of 69.76, the best on the PGA Tour, Rahm is one of the most consistent golfers on the tour and could do some damage on the fairways this week, having found 71.25% of greens in regulation so far in 2021.
The problem for Rahm will be his patience. Composure wins major championships, and after a difficult two weeks, following his disqualification at the Memorial Tournament, there’s a chance Rahm could see red if things start to go against him.
Rahm had carded two flawless rounds and held a six-shot lead heading into day three at the Memorial Tournament before being disqualified after testing positive for coronavirus. But if he can emulate that form in San Diego this week, he will stand a good chance of picking up his first major.
Unfortunately, Rahm’s biggest disadvantage is that he’ll have had much less time to prepare for the tournament, having spent much of the last week in isolation. Conversely, he carries an advantage over the playing field, having previously won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines back in 2017 while finishing second at the tournament in 2020 and T7 at the tournament in January. He knows this course well and knows how to beat it.
With Rahm absent from the final two days at the Memorial Tournament, 2020 PGA Champion Colin Morikawa came through the leaderboard to tie for first place with Patrick Cantlay. Morikawa eventually fell short to Cantlay after an 18th hole playoff but will still come into the US Open in flying form, finishing inside the top 20 in his last four tournaments.
Off the tee, Morikawa is the man to beat and is a hot favourite to win the championship purely because of his consistency. The 24-year-old tops the tour rankings for the most shots saved from tee to green this year while also recording a tour best hitting 71.83% of greens in regulation.
His methodology in his approach play is exceptional, and after struggling with his putting earlier in the year, Morikawa adopted a new “saw grip” putting style, which helped him pick up a convincing win at the WGC Concessional back in February.
Whether his new putting style will hold up on Torrey Pines’ rock-solid greens could be an issue. Although considering how dialled-in his approach play is right now, he’ll likely be able to keep the ball close to the pin and stay in the mix come Sunday afternoon.
On reflection, these are all four are outstanding golfers, each with their own specific plus points that give them a chance to win this week’s tournament. But Colin Morikawa takes my money as the most accurate and consistent golfer off the tee and is therefore the most likely to overcome the tribulations that Torrey Pines will present this week.