17 Jun 2021 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

Clayton: Running the rule over Torrey

by Mike Clayton

Torrey Pines setup preview image
Torrey Pines is hosting the US Open for the first time since 2008. Photo: Getty

Torrey Pines is hardly the most memorable of US Open courses despite the unquestionably spectacular looking golf on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean. In a country filled with incredible golf courses, no one is rushing to Torrey Pines to show off the greatness of American golf course architecture. It is, though, both beautifully conditioned and a very difficult course. The former makes tour pros happy, (even happier if they deem it to be ‘fair’) and the latter is a prerequisite of the USGA, the custodians of this week’s championship who enjoy winning scores somewhere close to par as opposed to the regular week-to-week PGA Tour birdie-fests. Torrey Pines is also the site of one of the most memorable Opens - proving great architecture isn’t a prerequisite for a great stage. In 2008 Tiger Woods made the incredible putt across 12 feet of right-to-left tilting and bumpy poa-annua to tie Rocco Mediate, a player who, Johnny Miller said at the time, "looks like the guy who cleans Tiger’s swimming pool". You can imagine how well that went down well with the Italian-American community. Either way, Tiger won the championship with an injured leg so painful his caddy Steve Williams said, “He had no right playing, let alone winning”. There is no Tiger this week, leaving the nostalgic looking to 50-year-old PGA champion Phil Mickelson to recall the excitement of the peak-Woods era. Six times the runner-up, Mickelson is playing at home on a course he knows well enough but, like the great Sam Snead, he’s surely destined to never win the one he wanted the most. Australians have never had much success at America’s Open. David Graham played one of the greatest final days ever at Merion in 1981 and Geoff Ogilvy was the only one of four contenders – Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Jim Furyk being the others – to play the final hole properly in 2006. Some think Ogilvy lucky. On the contrary, he was the only one to do what was needed at the very end when the pressure was red hot. Aside from anything else, Graham and Ogilvy show off the importance of rudimentary nine-hole public golf with Graham starting his road to Merion at Wattle Park and Ogilvy finding his way to Winged Foot via Cheltenham, the little nine-holer right next door to Victoria in the Melbourne Sandbelt. This season, Cameron Smith has been our best player, sitting ninth on the money list with a touch over $4 million in prizemoney. The Queenslander is one of those players leaving observers to wonder how he does it. He’s not flashy in the fashion of Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, or Dustin Johnson, but I well remember him winning the Australian Amateur at Commonwealth in 2012. Geoff Drakeford looked to be the better player – certainly the stronger player - and when the local man drove it onto the 14th green in the morning and went 5-up, the match looked finished. Instead, Smith plugged away, hitting fairways and greens with the required regularity until be broke Drakeford who by the end on the 16th green in the afternoon could barely hit the course. It took a while for the gallery to recognise that here was a very solid player and the decade since has been a continuation of logical golf and a wedge game statistically amongst the best 15 or 20 players on the tour. At a tournament where driving it into the rough, hacking it out eight yards away and trying to save a four from there is a part of the deal, having a world-class wedge game is a big help. So is driving it straight or being long enough to gouge it on to the green from the rough with a short iron -- the Bryson DeChambeau approach last year at Winged Foot. Marc Leishman and Adam Scott have both played well at Torrey Pines in the past so who knows?

Scott, in a way, is the opposite of Smith. Watching him play, I wonder why he doesn’t win six times a year, but no one wins so often in this era. The Scott swing looks so beautifully effortless, and statistically his wedge game is in the same class as Smith. Some point to the putter as the reason but when you hit as reliably as Scott you don’t have to be crazy good on the greens. Avoid three putts and holing out efficiently is enough if the hitting is clean and few look as clean as Scott. Then there is 47-year-old Steve Allan, one of the nicest blokes ever to play on the tour. He won the German Open in 1998, the Australian Open in 2002 and decided to play his golf in America. He gave a tournament away in Reno in 2004, something I assume rocked his confidence, and has ground it out on the fringes of the tour ever since. Allan is an interesting case of wondering how his career might have turned out had he stayed in Europe. He was well established there; the prizemoney was increasing to levels unimagined to the previous generation and he could have played for at least a decade at the upper levels of the European Tour. Finally, the early week talk in the United States is about this schoolboy feud between the defending champion Bryson DeChambeau and the best major player of the last five seasons, Brooks Koepka. Both are clearly among the favourites but never has their rivalry translated to a memorable Sunday at a major championship. Torrey Pines might be a good place to start.

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