The 121st U.S. Open was a triumph in spirit, to be sure. Jon Rahm’s curling putts on the 71st and 72nd greens will be savored for years to come.
Moreover, the championship was a triumph of art. You might even say it was a conceptual middle finger from Torrey Pines to the design snobs and architectural aristocrats who took swipes at the South Course leading up to the championship.
While the property provided drone pictures to die for, this U.S. Open was not about aesthetics, per se. This was a throwback to national championships of old, when par was precious, putts were pivotal and fairways and greens mattered. This was about substance, not style.
From a golf standpoint, Torrey Pines is not a show-stopping trip, not nearly as spectacular as its coastal boundaries. The holes tend to be similar, the terrain isn’t especially profound. It is, after all, a public facility. And the fact it hosts a regular PGA Tour stop bothers the purity police.
But last week’s U.S. Open setup, was not about postcards. It was construed with input from USGA Player Relations Director Jason Gore, a former PGA Tour player who played in the final pairing of the 2005 U.S. Open. It was about testing the best players in the world. It was about certification, and the proof was in the pounding.
The journey began last Thursday with two players leading the championship at 4-under par. Three days later, generally favorable scoring conditions notwithstanding, the winning score was 6 under. Only two players were better than 3 under.
Fairways were lean, greens were firm and the rough was what rough is supposed to be at a major - penal. The challenge was both physical and mental. Good shots were rewarded, errant shots were rebuffed and through it all, as Irishman Padraig Harrington likes to say, you had “keep your wits about ya.”
This U.S. Open would not be intimidated, quite the contrary.
Last September, Bryson DeChambeau bombed Winged Foot the way Nixon bombed Cambodia in 1969. The burly DeChambeau wasn’t particularly concerned with where it was going, as long as it went far. “Popeye the Driver Man” was strong to the finish because he could handle the spinach. And despite hitting just 23 of 56 fairways, he broke par in every round and won by six strokes. Willie Anderson was turning over in his grave.
Nine months later, one shot off the lead as he made the turn on Sunday, DeChambeau shot 8-over 44 on Torrey’s backside and fell on his sword.
“It's just one of those things where I didn't have the right breaks happen at the right time,” DeChambeau said afterward. “I could have easily gotten to 7-, 8-under today. I just wasn't fully confident with the golf swing and just got a little unlucky in the rough and a couple other places … It's golf. It's life.”
True, it is golf, the way it’s supposed to be. DeChambeau hit only three fairways in the final round. When you miss fairways, you’re not supposed to get lucky, you’re not supposed to get breaks. At a U.S. Open, you’re supposed to keep your ball in play - and you’re supposed to pay a price if you don’t.
That’s why it’s called “rough,” not “merciful” or “understanding.” It’s golf and, metaphorically, it’s life. The concept is compromised by today’s technological advancements and bomb-and-gouge game plans. Accuracy and finesse are analytical afterthoughts.
Tiger Woods was about power, no question. But Woods won major championships reeling in that power, hitting 2-irons and stingers instead of a “damn the torpedoes” driver.
Last week, player after U.S. Open player stepped to the tee, pulled out a driver and landed in a fairway bunker. There were more balls in the sand at Torrey Pines than bodies on the beach in Sandestin, Fla. You would have Southwest was offering bonus rewards to anyone who found the sand.
No going to school, no dial-downs, no adjustments. Keep in mind, today’s players are long through the bag, capable of hitting the next shot almost as long. But apparently, there’s only one way to skin a major championship. Launch it as far as you can and take whatever comes. Give me distance or give me death.
The purpose of the U.S. Open is to identify the most deserving, not the strongest, not the longest, not the least imaginative. Rahm hits it a long way, too. But he won because he hit 57 percent of the fairways on Sunday, while the field hit 50 percent. He hit 78 percent of the greens, while the field hit 61 percent. He averaged 1.56 putts per hole, while the field averaged 1.7.
He won because stayed patient through seven straight pars on the backside until he reached the moment of truth - a 24-footer on 17, an 18-footer on 18. He made ‘em both, the best performance in the field, the U.S. Open champion.
“That’s really what you’re trying to do,” architect Rees Jones told Golf Digest, “have the cream rise to the top, and it certainly did.”
Plenty of people prefer a more accommodating stage, a shootout at the Birdie Corral among the game’s top gunfighters. They will tell you watching those same players scuffle is not nearly as entertaining.
Plenty want a major to be something different, something you don’t see every week on the professional circuit, something that more closely resembles the Battle of Corinth. They want fancy a war of attrition, a course that trades body blows with the combatants, punch for punch.
The USGA has taken its share of jabs in recent years, when courses got too friendly (Erin Hills), when courses got away (Shinnecock Hills). But when you get it right, you get it right.
Torrey Pines has its skeptics, and resistance remains for it becoming part of a U.S. Open rotation. Regardless, the association and the facility have stepped to the plate together twice now (2008, 2021), and homered each time. You can’t take that away.
The 121st edition was difficult, unpredictable and memorable … a triumph of art and spirit.