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You’ve seen these vistas before – and not just in replay clips from 2008. The scenic Pacific coast, the hang gliders seemingly within arm’s reach of the fourth fairway, the yawning barranca that guards the 13th hole and separates North from South. When it comes to U.S. Open venues, we’re used to trotting out places that are seen once every seven or eight years or, in the case of Chambers Bay or Erin Hills, new to the entire field. But not this week.
For the second time in the last three years, the USGA’s crown jewel heads to a California course that held a regular PGA Tour event earlier in the year. Torrey Pines has been home to what is now the Farmers Insurance Open every year since 1968, producing a decorated litany of champions in an event where three of the four competitive rounds are played on the South Course.
But June isn’t January, and a golf course in the hands of the USGA is a far different animal than one carefully crafted by Tour setup officials. The par this week has already been knocked down to 71, with the sixth hole converted from a 564-yard par 5 to a 515-yard par 4. The fairways will be narrower, the rough exponentially more lush, and balls will land on the green with a distinctly hollow thud the likes of which only a major can produce.
“It’s a straightforward golf course that’s going to be set up extremely tough,” said Ian Poulter, who withdrew in 2008 after injuring his wrist hacking out of the thick stuff at Torrey. “The U.S. Open is the same, whatever venue we go to. It’s the same. Put it in the fairway, you’re going to have a great week. Put it in the rough, and you’re going to feel like you’re going to the dentist every single day. I mean, it’s torture.”
The experience may be a familiar one, for both players and fans, but this week’s location adds an extra twist. The South Course is one that some of the players have seen dozens of times in Tour competition. It’s a place where betting favorite Jon Rahm won for the first time on Tour in 2017, and where mid-range contenders like Patrick Reed, Justin Rose and Marc Leishman have won since. The course surely won’t play like it does during the West Coast Swing, but should extra attention be paid to those who have tamed the difficult track with regularity?
Some trends point to yes. Going back to 2000, five majors have been played on courses that regularly host Tour events (Pebble three times, plus Torrey and Quail Hollow). As Sporting Life’s Ben Coley noted, all five of those major winners had previously cracked the top 10 on the given course during regular competition. Two of those wins came from Tiger Woods, but still.
On the other hand, the 2008 leaderboard was littered with players that didn’t have much Torrey success before (or since). Playoff runner-up Rocco Mediate never finished better than T-48 in 12 Farmers appearances, while others like D.J. Trahan, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Geoff Ogilvy netted top-10s in the U.S. Open despite Farmers results that were riddled with MCs.
Updated U.S. Open odds (via PointsBet Sportsbook)
+1000: Jon Rahm
+1800: Xander Schauffele
Brandt Snedeker isn’t in the field this week, and this major hurts more than most for the veteran to miss. Few can match his Torrey Pines bona fides, with two wins and a pair of runner-up finishes at the Farmers since 2010. He was also T-9 in the 2008 U.S. Open, and while he’s unsure how aggressive the USGA will get with their setup, he’s confident that course familiarity will factor.
“There’s a certain way to play it. Some guys understand that, and it leads to a lot of success,” Snedeker said. “Even though it’s a U.S. Open, and it’s going to play different than Torrey does, it’s not going to be all that different. It kind of has certain holes that you’ve got to get around, and certain holes you can be aggressive on. It definitely lends itself to guys that have a good record there.”
That’s music to the ears of a guy like Rahm, who edged ahead of the pack of top-tier favorites in large part because of his Torrey track record: a win, runner-up, T-5 and T-7 finish among five appearances. Tony Finau has four finishes of T-6 or better in seven trips, never finishing worse than T-24, while Rose capped three straight top-8 finishes with a 2019 win.
But there are other big names who haven’t gotten along as well with the South Course. Brooks Koepka has missed the cut in two of his three Farmers appearances and has never broken par on the South, averaging 73.2. Coming off a missed cut at the Palmetto Championship, he’s hoping Torrey packs plenty of extra muscle this week.
“That grass, man, you put it in the rough and you’re going to struggle. You do that in January anyways, and you’re already in a lot of trouble,” Koepka said. “I mean, they can do whatever they want with that golf course. They can saturate it, or they can have that thing rock hard. So it’ll be interesting. I think it’s going to play completely different than what we normally see.”
Recent U.S. Open champions
2020: Bryson DeChambeau
2019: Gary Woodland
2018: Brooks Koepka
2017: Brooks Koepka
2016: Dustin Johnson
2015: Jordan Spieth
For some notables in the field, it’ll be a new look regardless of course conditions. The Farmers event is typically played in late January, when the European Tour is in the midst of its Middle East swing. So while the likes of Rahm and Rose have made the trek regularly in recent years, other top Europeans like Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick will be seeing Torrey Pines for the first time this week.
Also among that group is Tommy Fleetwood, who finished second behind Koepka at the 2018 U.S. Open and will be making his South Course debut this week. The Englishman made a scouting trip two years ago, playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February to study the host track ahead of the U.S. Open. But the course was lacking bite in soft conditions and didn’t resemble the layout he encountered a few months later. He described the effort as “pointless” and this time will instead learn Torrey on the fly.
“What we’ll lack is maybe a little bit of local knowledge, and a bit of course knowledge. I have no idea how similar the Farmers will play to a U.S. Open,” Fleetwood said. “I think from what I’ve seen on TV, most of the holes are in front of you. I think that’s the good thing. So it’s not like you’re going to a really tricked-up golf course.”
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From speaking to multiple players in recent days, some common themes are evident for those seeking major glory this week: the targets will be harder to hit than in January, and the penalty for misses, especially off the tee, will be more severe. But there’s also one element that should remain consistent – and could prove to be an accurate indicator of success.
“I think the one thing that stays the same is the greens. They’re all the same,” Snedeker said. “You’re going to have bumpy, fast poa (annua grass). So typically guys that putt poa well can handle what the U.S. Open will do to them. Because they’re going to get bumpy, they’re going to get nasty. It’s going to be hard to make putts late in the rounds. So you’ve got to have guys that are rolling it really good, that understand that you’re going to hit some great putts that don’t go in.”
In recent year the U.S. Open has gone to some of the brawniest players on Tour: Bryson, Koepka, DJ. Gary Woodland isn’t exactly short. But perhaps this test, with its mix of sheer length and fickle putting surfaces, will lift the most well-rounded players to the top while rewarding those that have come to learn the nooks and crannies of the South Course through annual Farmers pilgrimages.
Then again, when it comes to this particular major, sometimes the biggest key is to not over-think it.
“It’s the U.S. Open. You’ve just got to hit a fairway,” Poulter said. “That’s as simple as I’m going to give it to you.”
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