Torrey Pines might sit on one of the prettiest locations in golf, but it has never been confused with America’s greatest golf courses. It’s pretty, but pretty bland as well.
That said, the municipal golf course situated high above the Pacific Ocean as it drifts around the cliffs and sagebrush ravines has proven to be a fair host for golf’s most difficult major championship.
While it may not be a pillar of architectural genius like Pinehurst No. 2, or Oakmont, or Shinnecock, what Torrey Pines knows how to deliver is a good show. The scenic beauty adds to the volatility of a venue that offers plenty of chances to make birdies and plenty more opportunities to make bogeys or worse.
What it lacks in memorable golf holes it makes up for in memorable golf. Few US Opens were ever more memorable than 2008 at Torrey when Tiger Woods needed to go 91 dramatic holes to wrest the trophy away from the tenacious Rocco Mediate.
“There’s runs of holes where you feel like you’re going to have a couple of birdie chances in there, and then there’s obviously some tough holes,” said Lee Westwood, the only protagonist from the 2008 event to return. He missed the playoff by a shot and hadn’t returned until this week.
“Yeah, I just like the place. I think it’s a good, honest test of golf.” On a Thursday morning delayed 90 minutes by the infamous marine layer fog, the skies brightened, the military fighter jets screamed overhead and the breeze freshened to test the world’s best for the 121st US Open Championship.
Were you not entertained? There was a lot happening even with only half the field in play Thursday morning. Very few principle characters played their way out of the tournament, but nobody ran away with it either.
Phil Mickelson grew up adoring his hometown municipal, but fell out of love with it when architect Rees Jones first got his hands on the course at the turn of the century and made changes that never suited the left-hander who’d won three times here in the late 1990’s.
He’s tried hard to embrace the latest Jones renovations for this week, but a hardened heart is hard to change. Mickelson once again fought with the course and walked away with an indifferent over-par day that doesn’t bode particularly well for the 51-year-old reprising his magic from last month at the PGA Championship and completing his career slam.
Two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka has never really fared well at Torrey Pines either, But those past experiences were just regular PGA Tour events, and everybody knows Koepka doesn’t bring his best stuff when major trophies aren’t on the line.
Suddenly Koepka seems very comfortable on the South now that the stakes are higher, rattling off a string of late morning birdies to once again put himself in position to add to his total of four majors.
Matthew Wolff, who challenge Bryson DeChambeau into Sunday at Winged Foot last year, seemingly tried to invalidate the cliché that pars are a good score at a US Open. Wolff had eight birdies, three bogeys, two doubles, and only three pars in his first 16 holes as he rose and fell and rose and fell again among the leading pack.
Patrick Rodgers played 13 holes in 4 under before making his first bogey of the day to stake a consistent presence near the top of the leaderboard. Russell Henley, a former flamboyant low-amateur in his US Open debut up the coast at Pebble Beach 11 years ago, heated up to put himself among he heavyweights.
Xander Schauffele, a familiar face at every US Open, stole the local San Diegan spotlight playing with Mickelson to put himself in the mix yet again in the national championship.
The leaderboard had a little something for everybody, which is what makes majors so compelling in the first place.
The Italian brothers Molinari, Francesco and Eduardo, floated around most of the morning in red figures.
The English contingent of contenders included usual suspects like Matthew Fitzpatrick and Tyrrell Hatton as well as fresh face Marcus Armitage, who delivered an emotional victory in Hamburg two weeks ago just to earn the chance to play his first tournament in the States.
Spaniard Rafa Cabrera-Bello started with eight consecutive pars before a chip-in eagle on 18 ignited his bid for the lead.
As the greens firm up and the rough grows and the pressure intensifies over the next three days, Torrey Pines will separate the contenders from the pretenders with a test designed to define the best. It will test everyone’s patience, as it did Shane Lowry when he fought back from a one-penalty, four-putt triple bogey to remain on the fringe of contention.
So whether or not Torrey Pines is considered a true gem architecturally doesn’t matter. For the rest of the weekend, sit back and enjoy the view as Torrey Pines provides another good show.