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U.S. Open 2021: A deep-dive look at how Torrey Pines will play tougher than as a regular PGA Tour event

Our interactive goes point-by-point on the ways the USGA will make a regular PGA Tour stop the toughest test of the year.
4th Hole

When the U.S. Open comes to Torrey Pines South Course, it will be the third time that a major championship has been played on a course that also annually hosts a PGA Tour event, and the second time in three years that it’s happened for a U.S. Open. The venerable coastal California municipal golf course is home to the Farmers Insurance Open early in the tour’s West Coast swing and has been so since 1968. The question naturally occurs though if the U.S. Open prides itself on being the toughest test in golf and it’s being played on a PGA Tour course where the winning scores over the last five years is nearly 15-under-par, how can that same course transform into a beast where even par is the standard? John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior director of championships who is responsible for setting up the course, likes to say “We’re going to let Torrey be Torrey.” More precisely, he says, “The goal is to have them get every club in their bags dirty.” How? Well, it is a witches’ brew of added length (but not always), firmer turf and stouter rough combined with the fundamental meteorological differences between January and June that turns the Farmers into the Frighteners. Here’s a look at how Torrey gets tougher from tee to green.

Interactive by Bill Specht

THE TEE BOX

The U.S. Open version of Torrey Pines might play only about 60 yards longer than the PGA Tour version and the majority of that might only come if the 15th hole is stretched to the back tee box at 513 yards. For historical reference that’s almost 150 yards longer than it played in the PGA Tour event as recently as 2000. As Bodenhamer likes to say, “This is an adult golf course. Length will be part of it.”

THE ROUGH

Accuracy matters exponentially at a U.S. Open and the rough is how that skill set is most revealed. Quick stat: The last time the U.S. Open was played at Torrey Pines, players who missed the fairway only hit the green about 38 percent of the time. For the PGA Tour version, it’s about 55 percent. Get closer and you might not think the rough is any longer for the U.S. Open version of Torrey. But it will be tougher. Instead of relatively thin ryegrass, which is overseeded in the fall, the native kikuyu takes over in the warmer months. At full strength, kikuyu is to ryegrass the way a wire brush is to angel hair pasta, uncooked. Still, the kikuyu will be just long enough to tempt players to blast approach shots to the green. But because the kikuyu can slow down the clubhead and reduce spin, players won’t have as much distance control on shots landing on the firmer greens. That, and they’ll have to use a different, steeper swing and a higher lofted club, further making holes play longer than the listed yardage.

THE FAIRWAY

Here’s a secret: In terms of actual measurements, the fairways for the U.S. Open won’t be narrower than they were for the Farmers, and in some cases they might be wider. But because it’s June and not January, those same widths will play effectively narrower. Tee shots rolled barely 10 yards at Torrey Pines in January where cold temperatures and wetter conditions softened the landing areas, while in June with warmer temps and stronger winds they might roll easily twice that much. With the slopes on some fairways, that could mean bounces into the thick stuff. Also, in warmer temperatures shots carry farther so angles that were safely in a narrow fairway in the winter months might fly a few yards farther and into trouble in the summer. Bodenhamer says, “It’s really the firm and fast that makes it narrower, not what we’ve done to the golf course.” Of course, there’s also the intangible effect to consider: The ensuing difficulty that comes with missing the fairway at a U.S. Open puts that much more pressure on a player to hit the fairway.

GREENSIDE ROUGH

While there will be some closely mown areas of runoff around some greens, the heavy kikuyu will be particularly nettlesome near the greens. Players got up and down about 55 percent of the time at the Farmers, but only 45 percent of the time at the last 10 U.S. Opens. On firm U.S. Open greens a short shot out of the rough might have one-third less spin and roll out 15 feet or more, especially if it’s from the back of the green since Torrey’s greens almost always slope from back to front.

HOLE LOCATIONS

U.S. Open hole locations are sneaky. Gone are the days when every pin was barely two paces from the edge. Instead, it’s a mind game, says Bodenhamer. “How do we tempt them to do something they might not otherwise do? ... A U.S. Open champion will have the discipline not to make that short-sided mistake.” That means, where players might have seen a “2” or a “3” on a hole location and automatically just aimed for the center of the green, if they see a “4,” they’re much more likely to go after it, and if they miss it just a little, well, see “Greenside Rough” above, or as Bodenhamer says, “You’re really busy then.”