16 Jun 2021 | Professional golf |

US Open: Legends of Torrey Pines

by Contributor

Tiger Woods Torrey image
Sunday afternoon, and Tiger Woods makes the putt to send the US Open to a playoff in 2008. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

Of Tiger Woods’ three US Opens wins – Pebble Beach in 2000, Bethpage Black in 2002 and Torrey Pines in 2008 – the most exciting, and the one that demanded his best golf under huge duress, was the last.

Woods made a do-or-die three-metre birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff the following day against journeyman pro Rocco Mediate. When the putt dropped Mediate – who was watching on television in the scorer’s hut – shook his head and said ruefully: ‘I knew he’d make it.’ (Although he preferred Are You Kidding Me? for the title of his book on the tournament).

Scores were still tied at that end of the playoff the next day, and Woods eventually won with a par on the first extra sudden-death hole.

But the most remarkable thing was that Woods did all this on one leg.

Eight days after lifting the trophy he went under the surgeon’s knife to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, using a tendon from his right thigh. Woods missed the rest of the season and did not return until the Match Play Championship eight months later (where he lost to South African Tim Clark in the second round).

The US Open returns to Torrey Pines on June 17-20, 13 years after Woods’ heroics. It will be the third major championship of the year following the US Masters at Augusta National (won by Japanese player Hideki Matsuyama) and the US PGA at Kiawah Island (won by American Phil Mickelson).

The year’s final major, the Open Championship, will be held at Royal St George’s in England in mid-July.

Woods, recovering from a car accident several weeks ago, will not be a contender at Torrey Pines. That aside, the quality of the field will be as good as it could be. Seventy-six exempt players (the best professionals in the world) will join another 78 (of more than 9,000 entrants) who qualified at various locations in the USA.

Torrey Pines is a municipal public golf facility in San Diego, California, sitting high on the coastal cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the community of La Jolla. It opened in 1957, built on the site of Camp Callan, a World War II US Army installation.

Unlike many US Open venues, Torrey Pines hosts an annual tournament on the PGA Tour, so the professionals know the course well (the tournament has had several names since it began in 1968, now called the Farmers Insurance Open). Between 1999 and 2013 Woods won this event an extraordinary seven times, but lately it has been kind to the Australians; Jason Day won in both 2015 and 2018, both times in a playoff, and Marc Leishman won in 2020, by a shot over Spain’s Jon Rahm.

Rahm (who tested positive for COVID after 54 holes of the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, and had to withdraw) will be one of the favourites this year, but expect an American to lift the trophy come Sunday afternoon (Monday morning Australia time). Americans have won every US Open since Germany’s Martin Kaymer blitzed the field by eight strokes at Pinehurst in 2014.

Last year’s winner Bryson DeChambeau is one of the favourites, while his countrymen Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson will be desperate to atone for poor showings in the US PGA. Brooks Koepka, who finished equal second in the PGA and who won the US Open in 2017 and 2018, will be quietly confident although knee problems clearly hampered him at Kiawah Island. Don’t count out South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who has finished runner-up in all four major championships, as well as winning the 2010 Open Championship.

Only two players in the last 50 years have won the US Open in consecutive years — Curtis Strange (1988-89) and Brooks Koepka (2017-18). DeChambeau would love to join them.

The biggest cheers on the first tee on opening day will be for left-hander Phil Mickelson, a native of San Diego, who will turn 51 the day before the event starts. Mickelson turned the golfing world on its head with his PGA win, as world number 115, at the ripe old age of 50. By doing so, he became the oldest player ever to win one of golf’s four majors, overtaking Julius Boros, who won the 1968 US PGA aged 48.

‘This is just an incredible feeling,’ Mickelson said after the win. ‘I just believed it was possible but everything was saying it wasn’t. There's no reason why you can't accomplish your goals at an older age. It just takes a little more work.’

Mickelson became the fourth player to win a PGA Tour event in four different decades, alongside Sam Snead, Raymond Floyd and Davis Love III.

The win, Mickelson’s sixth major title, came 30 years after his first win, the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson, Arizona in 1991, as an amateur. His subsequent 44 wins include the 1993, 2000 and 2001 Buick Invitationals, held at Torrey Pines. So, aside from Woods, no-one knows the course better than him.

And he probably thinks the US Open owes him one. He has finished second in the event six times, including a final-hole meltdown at Winged Foot in 2006, won by Australian Geoff Ogilvy.

As Seve Ballesteros said after his 1984 Open Championship win at St Andrews: ‘The game is great, and very strange.’

Never say never.

Richard Allen is a journalist, author and Golf Australia board member. First published in the Australian Financial Review

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