There’s an old adage that should hold true for every United States Open Championship: The golf course is the star.
Oakmont, Winged Foot, Olympic Club, Pinehurst -- these are names from the oldest Golden Ages of the game. They materialize out of the mists of history like a dream, enchant us with their beguiling mystery, and then vanish back again from whence they came for another 10 or 12 years before being welcomed again like an old beloved friend.
The same can’t be said of Torrey Pines. Not only does the South Course have short, recent history of being a major venue, but it’s been a regular Tour stop for decades -- and a popular one at that. For the rank-and-file Tour players in the field, there won’t be anything they haven’t seen before. It’s just be presented more ferociously.
“It's all right in front of you; nothing's hidden. You just have to go out and play well and really manage your game,” explained a somewhat rueful, yet candid Justin Thomas, who earlier asked himself why he doesn’t play here more often, as he was so impressed each time he’d been here. “And like any U.S. Open or any major, you need to make those par putts and saves to kind of keep the momentum going.”
That will be the key this week. Yes, the South Course will have the same routing, but it can stretch far longer, to a ludicrous 7,802 yards if the USGA wishes. (A figure setup man John Bodenhamer said the USGA won't even approach.) The length will really be used to tempts the players into hitting driver at more strategic places on the golf course, bringing bigger numbers into play, but also more chances for birdie or even eagle. But the fairways have been narrowed to the usual U.S. Open slimness, adding in Mike Davis’s six-foot intermediate cut on either side. The primary rough can range anywhere from 3-and-a-half inches to five or even six inches or more in places. But it’s an open question as to whether that will be enough to keep the Tour’s longest bombers in check.
“When we play here at Torrey Pines, it's in February. The golf course is a lot wetter and plays a lot longer,” began Phil Mickelson, who enters this tournament as the winner of the last contested major, the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, where he also became golf’s oldest major champion.
“[Now} what starts to come out are the subtleties and the nuances. And with the fairways being contoured the way they are and being firm now, they're going to be more difficult to hit; you've got to shape it into the fairways…it's going to be a difficult test.”
The length of the rough is not the only concern. The thick blade of the kikuyu grass is known to twist around club hosels, sending would-be recovery shots squirting off into even more dreadful places. Worse still is the occasional ice plant, a thick-bladed, almost rubbery member of the aloe family. More prevalent at Pebble Beach than San Diego, there are still patches at the South Course. Tiger Woods was confounded several times by the ice plant in 2008, yet still won that U.S. Open in a 19-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate.
“It really depends what type of lie you get,” observed Bryson DeChambeau, who is defending championship he won last November at Winged Foot’s fabled West Course. [Kikuyu] is a different type of grass, so you can't get through it as easily. But for the most part, I'm going to be trying to bomb it as much as possible, and try to gouge it out when I don't hit it in the fairway. If I have over 190 mile-an-hour ball speed, it's going to be tremendous out here covering bunkers and what not.”
DeChambeau predicted that he’d be able to conquer the infamous Winged Foot rough, and he was right, running away with last year’s Open by a startling six shots and posting a winning score of 6-under 274, the lowest aggregate and score-to-par in a US Open at Winged Foot. He plans to do the same, blasting his 48-inch driver over Rees Jones’s redesigned bunkers that were added for the express purpose of preventing such an aerial attack. But DeChambeau, 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson and two-time champion Brooks Koepka are among the bombers in the field capable of shattering driving distance records at Torrey carrying tee shots over all the trouble, and not caring about how thick the rough is if they miss the fairway. For his part, when asked about the rough, Koepka was more concerned with the firmness of the greens
“The firmness, I think that's the big thing. I actually think the greens are going to be a lot better than what they would be in January and February just because they are firmer,” DeChambeau suggested. “With poa, you see a lot of spike marks at the end of the day, and being firmer, I don't think you're going to see as much. The greens seem a lot better, to be honest with you. That will be the big difference. The rough, obviously, that's kind of self-explanatory.”
Koepka comes into the tournament having been stung twice recently. First, Mickelson played David to Koepka’s Goliath, and snatched the Wanamaker Trophy and last month’s PGA Championship away from Big Bad Brooksy when Koepka’s length proved impotent against Mickelson’s craftiness in the fickle Ocean Course winds. Second, a video surfaced of Koepka cursing and being otherwise embarrassed by a wise-cracking Bryson DeChambeau during a TV interview spot. It’s no surprise that the already large metaphoric chip on his shoulder would grow so large that he might try to use that, along with his driver to bludgeon Torrey into submission.
Mickelson, on the other hand is playing the crafty veteran yet again. As he did at Kiawah Island, he is eschewing the driver occasionally in favor of another of his science experiments. Call it a “mini driver” or 2-wood or “Frankenclub,” Phil is still going full bore after that elusive U.S. Open win that would complete the career grand slam for him. And that means, to him, playing smarter, not longer.
“It’s just a 2-wood. I think at least half, if not a fraction more, of tee shots will be with that club just because the way the fairways are a little bit firmer than the Farmers,” Mickelson began.
“There's a lot of holes where it kind of turns or tightens, and I don't really want to get to that spot. If you look at 4, you get it down too far and it starts to pinch in by the canyon. You look at the contour on 7, how much that fairway pitches. I really don't want to get it down there. That 2-wood, I'll call it, seems to fit the right yardage on a lot of those holes for me.”
According to Mickelson, it’s not the exact club he used at Kiawah (apparently he goes through several different heads), but it is the same loft he used at the Ocean Course where he defeated Koepka head-to-head on PGA Championship Sunday.
And so apart from greens speeds that will reach an Indy 500-like 13.5 on the Stimpmeter, several longer approach shots, and one par 5 reduced to a par 4 for the championship (the sixth hole), the Torrey Pines the greatest golfers in the world will face at this US Open will be the same Torrey they face in February for the annual PGA Tour stop. Only this time they’re chasing a national title and major championship glory. And that can make all the difference.