In the aftermath of the US Open’s last visit to Torrey Pines, it was a line from his manager which really grabbed attention about a remarkable triumph by Tiger Woods. “It wasn’t that he could do extensive new damage to the knee,” said Mark Steinberg. “His doctor just doubted anybody could stand the pain.”
hen the $12.5m, 121st instalment of the blue riband of American golf begins on Thursday, a story of physical survival will be replaced by one of career enhancement. With six runner-up finishes, El Tigre’s great rival, Phil Mickelson, will be seeking a breakthrough victory at the 30th attempt, four days past his 51st birthday.
Mickelson was to have joined Pádraig Harrington in sectional qualifying last Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, where the Dubliner narrowly failed to get through. For the Californian, however, the assignment was overtaken by events.
Nine days after the USGA had accorded him a special invitation for their return to his home town, he proceeded to experience dramatic success in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Which meant a five-year exemption into the US Open, taking him up to Oakmont in 2025.
Ireland’s representation this week will be reduced to two, Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry, who will go on to spearhead a sparkling field for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Mount Juliet (July 1-4). Graeme McDowell’s 10-year exemption for a memorable victory at Pebble Beach in 2010 ended last year and he failed to get through qualifying this time around.
Meanwhile, it is perhaps inevitable that a return to Torrey Pines should be dominated by memories of 2008 and the indomitable spirit of the champion. Knowing he faced surgery to the ACL in his left knee, an MRI scan also showed a double stress-fracture of the left tibia for which the suggested treatment was three weeks on crutches, then three weeks of inactivity followed by rehabilitation.
Still, the player insisted: “I was determined to do everything and anything in my power to play in the US Open on a course that is close to where I grew up and holds many special memories for me.” As things turned out, he endured 91 holes, culminating in a sudden-death play-off with Rocco Mediate.
If there is to be a lasting image of Torrey Pines, it will surely be the 12-foot putt on the 72nd green, which Woods studied for 40 seconds from one perspective and then 30 seconds from another, before holing it to force a tie. He described it as “two and a half balls outside the right lip” and over a surface “a bit wobbly.” With so many variables involved, finding the target bordered on the miraculous.
Hearing his frequent recourse to the language of pain, as in ouch! ow! and ah! over a gripping weekend, brought to mind one of Spike Milligan’s frequent excursions into glorious lunacy. Explaining how he had come to the aid of a seriously injured man, the comic said: “Well, he began screaming in agony, which I happen to speak fluently.”
Mickelson looked the picture of health in a hugely impressive win at Kiawah last month. He has acquired mixed views on Torrey Pines, however, despite three wins there in the Buick Invitational of 1993, 2000 and 2001. The millennium staging was especially memorable for the fact that he pushed course specialist, Woods, into a share of second place by the crushing margin of four strokes.
“Winning the US Open has been a lifelong dream, and I’ve come close so many times,” said Mickelson, a San Diego native who was tied 18th in 2008. From an early affection for Torrey Pines, however, he seemed to suddenly fall out of love with the place when he was overlooked for design work on the North Course. “Torrey Pines is not a good place for me anymore,” he said pointedly, after withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open in 2019.
He is one of 12 players, including McIlroy, to have captured three of the four men’s Major titles and is attempting to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods as a winner of the career Grand Slam. Notable among those for whom the US Open remained stubbornly elusive was Sam Snead, acknowledged among the truly greats of the game.
The six US Opens in which Mickelson was either second on his own or tied runner-up were to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst No1 in 1999, Woods at Bethpage Black (2002), Retief Goosen (Shinnecock Hills 2004), Geoff Ogilvy (Winged Foot 2006), Lucas Glover (Bethpage Black 2009) and Justin Rose (Merion 2013). Interestingly, he chose the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach for his professional debut, but the magic deserted him after an opening 68 and a second-round 81 edged him two strokes outside the cut.
Two near misses which remain especially memorable are 1999 where he used what would now be regarded as stone-age technology to warn him if his pregnant wife was set to deliver. This was a beeper, so favoured of medical people.
In the event, his chance of victory disappeared on the 72nd green where playing partner, Stewart, sank a 20-foot birdie putt for the title. A day later, Mickelson was at home in San Diego for the birth of his and wife Amy’s first-born, Amanda Brynn.
The other notable close-call was at Winged Foot where, with victory in his grasp, he ruinously sliced his final drive into the hospitality area to open the door for Geoff Ogilvy. Harrington also had his best chance that year, but closed with three bogeys to finish fifth.
A widely-held professional view is that Torrey Pines plays very differently in June than it does when staging the Farmers Insurance event (formerly the Buick) early in the year. This has clearly much to do with the agronomy of the South Course, a par-71 layout stretching to 7,643 yards.
Dating from 1957, when it was designed by local architect William Bell, son of a noted West Coast architect of the same name, it has since been modified and upgraded in 2001 and 2009 by Rees Jones, the favoured designer of the USGA. The fairways and rough comprise wiry kikuyu grass overseeded with rye and the greens are a mixture of bent and meadowgrass. There are a total of 54 bunkers and a lone water-hazard fronts the 573-yard, par-five 18th where the tee may be moved forward to facilitate an eagle finish.
This is above all a dangerous hole, as the Australian Bruce Devlin discovered when in contention for the 1975 Andy Williams San Diego Open. The hapless Devlin took six hacks to extricate himself from the edge of the water, en route to a wretched 10. Which led to the pond being labelled ‘Devlin’s Billabong’.
We can take it that Bryson DeChambeau, the defending champion, is already drooling over how he may butcher this hole, assuming he manages to avoid timber right and left off the tee. “I love the golf course; I love this tournament,” he said on a recent visit. He then claimed that images of what Woods achieved in 2008 “inspired me to almost say, hey, if he can win off a broken leg, pretty much, what can I do if I work hard. It’s inspired me to a whole other level. Most impressive was that Tiger, being Tiger, having fractured a leg and all that, literally still going, playing the full 72 holes and then going out and playing another 18 holes after that.”
It was only when a hard-nosed local scribe reminded DeChambeau of how he himself had missed the cut in the Farmers event of 2017 and 2018 that a bit of realism entered the observations of the so-called Mad Scientist.
“Yeah, you know, look, I finished well here before that,” he responded. “I finished third, no second in Junior World, and the times that I was here for the Farmers Insurance, my game wasn’t on point. I wasn’t comfortable with how I was playing for those years. But look, the golf course will play completely different in the US Open. It’s going to be really firm, fast and long enough, I’m sure.”
Woods is the only player, so far, to have conquered Torrey Pines in both early spring and high summer conditions. And a key question is whether DeChambeau can repeat his performance of Winged Foot where, in the words of rival Xander Schauffele, the USGA played right into his hands with a US Open set-up which became a pitch-and-putt challenge.
Predictably, the scientist’s response was not straight-forward. “Hitting out of kikuyu, there’s almost no club you can get it out and hit it really far,” he said. “Deep down into kikuyu it’s almost impossible.” We’ll see.
One of the game’s early professionals, Willie Park Jnr, famously remarked that a good putter is a match for anyone. Though Jordan Spieth has never produced his best at Torrey Pines, few would bet against him this time around, on current form, especially in view of a West Coast triumph in the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay.
Then there is Jon Rahm and how he’ll respond this week to the crushing misfortune of having to relinquish a winning position at The Memorial last weekend, due to Covid. Will a liking for a venue which brought his first PGA Tour win in the 2017 Farmers, be sufficient to compensate for lack of practice time?
The recent form of Lowry is encouraging. Especially uplifting is his description of top-10 finishes in his last-four starts as “decent.” Not brilliant nor awesome. His choice of language strikes just the right chord, given the standard to which a player of his quality should be aspiring.
Even a share of fourth place in the PGA Championship is no more than decent for the reigning Open champion. Lowry is good enough to mix it with the best this week and the hope is that he’s thinking that way.
As a player of superior quality, McIlroy’s problems are different. In short, he has got to find within himself the desire and enthusiasm to reach for the top once more. All the technical help in the world is not going to compensate for the emotional void he has slipped into of late.
When the 2008 US Open was extended to an extra day, NBC Network had their best Monday rating for golf in 30 years. And the play-off gave ESPN the most-viewed telecast in the history of cable television.
In search of inspiration, challengers may find that another look at the extraordinary will to win of a remarkable player, could prove to be time very well spent. Especially in the long preamble before heading to the first tee on Thursday.