The 121st U.S. Open kicks of on Thursday at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California. Here are five intriguing storylines to follow through to Sunday.
Which Brooks will show up?
Apart from shooting his mouth off more than necessary in his ongoing spat with Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka has been the mystery man so far in 2021. Following three missed cuts early on, he won the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February and recorded a T2 at the WGC Workday Championship later that month. Then surgery in March to repair a dislocated kneecap, followed by missed cuts at the Masters and AT&T Byron Nelson, then a T2 at the PGA Championship. Last week Brooks missed another cut at the Palmetto Championship, so is he due for a rebound or another MC? We know Brooks is a big game hunter and when healthy plays super well in the majors. He finished 1-1-2 in three U.S. Opens from 2017-2019.
Does Bryson need to get longer?
Defending U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau certainly has to be considered one of the favourites this week at Torrey Pines. The course is long but relatively wide open and that should suit his bomb and gouge style well. There won’t be any heavy deep rough like he had to contend with at Winged Foot last September, although the west coast Kikuyu grass can be gnarly. BDC isn’t coming into U.S. Open week on anything close to a hot streak; T55, T38 and T18 probably have the Mad Scientist scratching his head and looking for a different solution. Perhaps he’s bothered by losing his Long Driving title to South African Wilco Nienaber, who averaged 361 yards off the tee in his PGA Tour debut and blasted several drives over 400 yards on the European Tour. Still, Bryson has a strong short game to go with his length and I expect to see him on the leaderboard come Sunday.
What about Phil?
The trouble with Phil Mickelson is he has so much history working against him. Six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open including the famous “I’m such an idiot” 72nd hole meltdown at Winged Foot in 2006 and many other instances of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when so much was expected of him. The opposite is true of course too. Nobody expected an almost 51-year-old to contend, much less win, the PGA Championship last month at Kiawah Island. One thing you can almost always say about Phil is that he’s full of surprises. He comes into this week as the overwhelming sentimental favourite to notch the fourth leg of his personal Grand Slam, yet most pundits don’t give him much of a chance at Torrey Pines. Phil has a new focus, a new physical regimen and it’s a home game for him. Add it all up and what have you got? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’d love to see him in the mix on Sunday. They don’t call him Phil the Thrill for nothing.
How important is knowledge and past history?
Course familiarity often plays an important role in deciding tournament winners. Nobody knows that better than Tiger Woods who has eight wins at Torrey Pines, Firestone and Bay Hill, seven wins at Doral and five at Augusta. When it comes to majors, repeat winners often cite their experience under major pressure as a key to closing out another title. Typically, the U.S. Open does not return to the same venue for 10 years or more, making course familiarity pretty much a non-factor. However, Torrey Pines is a regular Tour stop and there are five past champions in the U.S. Open field: Patrick Reed, Marc Leishman, Justin Rose, Jon Rahm and Bubba Watson. There are also nine past U.S. Open champions playing: Bryson DeChambeau (2021), Dustin Johnson (2016), Martin Kaymer (2014), Brooks Koepka (2017, 2018), Rory McIlroy (2011), Justin Rose (2013), Webb Simpson (2012), Jordan Spieth (2015) and Gary Woodland (2019). Here’s your prop bet: do you take the past Farmers winners and past U.S. Open champions (13 players in all since Justin Rose is on both lists) or the rest of the field, which includes top ranked players such as World #2 Justin Thomas, #4 Collin Morikawa, #6 Xander Schauffele, Masters Champion Hideki Matsuyama and recent PGA Tour winner Patrick Cantlay?
Is everybody a deserving champion?
Let me state for the record that anybody who wins a U.S. Open deserves to win. Even if he’s handed the title when the leader collapses down the stretch; even if he sinks a lucky impossibly long putt on the 72nd hole; even if he went through three rounds of qualifying and his regular job is picking balls on the range at the local muni. If that player has the best score after four rounds of golf, then he’s deserving of being called the U.S. Open Champion. That said, not all those scenarios would be our choice for champion or even the way we’d like to see the tournament finish. Who wouldn’t like to see Brooks and Bryson going head-to-head in the final? Or Phil making another magic run at the major he most covets? Likewise, Lee Westwood nabbing his first major after a million tries or Xander Schauffele winning his first in his hometown. Jordan Spieth would be a great story, at least in my opinion and Rory McIlroy too. Last time the U.S. Open came to town, Tiger defeated Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff. If it had gone the other way, a lot of people would have said Rocco wasn’t really a deserving champion, wasn’t really major material. Nonsense. No other major gives as much opportunity for long shots to qualify and maybe even win. Tin Cup wasn’t a true story but if there’s a real version of Roy McAvoy in the field, a true underdog that’s in contention on Sunday, I’m with him.