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U.S. Open 2021

USGA taking stock at Torrey Pines during Farmers Insurance Open as '21 U.S. Open approaches

January 29, 2021

Donald Miralle

SAN DIEGO—It doesn’t happen more than once or twice a decade, when a venue for the PGA Tour is also the site of a major championship in the same year. That’s been the case most at Pebble Beach, which hosts the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am each February and is in the regular rotation for the U.S. Open, last inviting the USGA in 2019 and next tabbed for 2027.

Now it’s Torrey Pines’ turn. The South Course was the stage for one of the most dramatic finishes in U.S. Open history, with Tiger Woods beating Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole Monday playoff in 2008. But we’re wistfully far down the road from that now—so much so, in fact, that there are only 18 players in the Farmers Insurance Open field this week who played the last Open in San Diego. Rickie Fowler played in that major as an amateur, for goodness sakes.

The USGA awarded Torrey Pines a second U.S. Open in 2014, and in the aftermath there was more than $12 million of work done on the South, overseen by original renovator Rees Jones and his architectural partner Greg Muirhead. The irrigation was overhauled from the first redo in 2001, bunkers were moved and renovated, green surrounds were replaced, and a couple of holes were lengthened.

Still, it figures that Torrey Pines will very much look and play the same as it did in 2008, when Woods and Mediate were the only players to finish in the red at one under par.

“It’s the same golf course, but it will also be a little bit different,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior director of championships, said this week. Bodenhamer was scheduled to arrive at Torrey Pines on Friday to do some scouting during the Farmers at Torrey, with his last visit having come in November.

“The work that Rees did is going to pay dividends in a number of ways,” Bodenhamer said.

The most significant changes: the lengthening of the par-4 10th hole and adding a troublesome fairway bunker there; adding bunkers to the left side of the par-5 13th; creating or expanding mowed-down collection areas at the seventh, ninth and 15th; and lengthening the 15th hole by 35 yards. On several holes, fairway bunkers were moved farther from the tee to combat the ever-evolving power game.

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As numerous players noted this week, how the South Course plays during the Farmers in February will be very different than for the U.S. Open in June. In fact, there’s a statistic that clearly bears that out: In 2008, the only player to post a top 10 in the Farmers and Open was Woods, and he won both of them. Of the 13 players who finished T-9 or better in the Open, only six chose to come to San Diego for a “preview” (Mediate, by the way, missed the cut in the Farmers that year).

“This year for the U.S. Open I think it's going to be really firm, really fast," said Marc Leishman, who won the 2020 Farmers. "I think the rough is going to be up. I think it's going to be tough, it's going to play like a different golf course."

Bodenhamer is sure that will be the case. In June, when the weather in San Diego is warmer and drier, the USGA can do virtually anything it wants with the setup, without fear that it will all be undone by Mother Nature. The challenge will most certainly come with heavy kikuyu rough (its overseeded with rye for the Farmers) and firmer, bouncier greens. Also, the idea of having “graduated” rough, which was the direction Mike Davis took the Open, is becoming a thing of the past.

“We’ve re-thought our strategy the last couple of years, starting with Pebble Beach and Winged Foot,” Bodenhamer said. “We’re going back to more old-fashioned U.S. Opens where we put a premium on accuracy off the tee. You’re going to see that at Torrey Pines.

“You have to drive your ball in the fairways to control your approach shots, and your pitch and chip shots. The greens will be bouncy. We’ll have the greatest players in the world that week, and we’ll be able to identify the best player.”

While the South will again play at par 71 for the Open (No. 6 converting from a par-5 to par-4), one thing we’re unlikely to see in June: a drivable par-4 hole. Davis shortened the South’s 14th to 277 yards in 2008, with mixed reviews.

“I think that’s something we’ll look at when we’re out there,” Bodenhamer said, “and my mindset is that there are holes that automatically play as drivable, and that’s not one of them.”

Fewer than five months away from the U.S. Open, the USGA has delivered good news that there will be a return to local and sectional qualifying after they had to be canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic, and it seems fairly certain the Open will be contested in June and not moved, as the USGA had to do with last year’s championship at Winged Foot. That will return some semblance of normalcy to the proceedings, but there is still one very critical question to be answered: Will there be fans?

“That’s still a moving target,” Bodenhamer said. “We haven’t made a determination yet. We’re hoping for the best and are watching what’s happening in California and are concerned for everybody out there. We’ve got a little bit of time on our side, a few more weeks before we have to make a decision.

“We’ll be as nimble as we can be. We’re going to move as late as we can to have as many people as we can.”

Much of that choice depends on local and state authorities, whom the USGA speaks to regularly. California currently is not allowing large gatherings for any events, including sports, and the PGA Championship was played last August without fans.

Given the enthusiastic crowds of 40,000 per day and record-breaking revenues the USGA enjoyed in ’08, not having fans this time around would be “tremendously disappointing,” Bodenhamer said, for San Diego and the USGA.

“There was a tremendous amount of energy in 2008, and Torrey Pines sets up that way,” he said. “It’s a big U.S. Open, a big footprint. And the tournament was one of the ages. But just as we felt at Winged Foot last year, we’re just grateful to have the opportunity to play. That’s the most important thing.”