U.S. Open to return to Torrey amid high expectations

By Jason SobelMarch 18, 2014, 7:16 pm

Let’s start this column off with something we can all agree upon: The 2008 U.S. Open was one for the ages.

Everyone nodding their heads in unison? Good, you should be. As if anyone needs reminding, that was the year Tiger Woods – all-time great, broken leg, clutch putter – defeated Rocco Mediate – man of the people, balky back, ultimate grinder – in one of golf’s most entertaining thrill rides of this or any other generation.

By any fan’s estimation, the first U.S. Open at Torrey Pines had to be considered an unqualified success, even if based solely on the eventual outcome. Same goes for any journalist whose main rooting interest lies with the story, because that week was chock full of luscious storylines.

What about the USGA, though?

In light of Tuesday’s announcement that the U.S. Open will be returning to Torrey Pines for the 2021 edition of the event, that was my question. I wanted to know whether the final result had as much – or even more – of an effect on bringing the tourney back to Torrey than such usual variables as infrastructure and course conditions.

So I asked the man in charge, USGA executive director Mike Davis.

“When you look at the drama that was created back then and you look at how the course tested all parts of the game, yet it didn't necessarily favor one type of game, [those are] absolutely things we look at,” Davis said during a teleconference.

It’s nice to know we’re all on the same page.

Oftentimes in these situations, there’s a tendency to overcomplicate matters from the powers-that-be. You and I might witness the 2008 U.S. Open and proclaim, “Great venue, great event, let’s do it again someday.” But with so many other factors at play when making such a decision, the actual end result can be pushed further down the priority list than it should.

Not this time, though – and Davis deserves to receive kudos for keeping it in the forefront of his thought process.

“When we look back on 2008,” Davis explained, “I think one of the things we all talked about is, ‘How can we possibly top that?’ From my perspective, that was one of the great U.S. Opens ever. Whether it rivals, say, 1913 or 1960 or some of the other great U.S. Opens we've had, history will eventually, I guess, tell that story. But it was a great Open.”

Not that there weren’t plenty of other factors, of course.

The aforementioned infrastructure is already in place based on the fact that Torrey Pines houses two world-class 18-hole golf courses. For one week in June seven years from now, that will be transformed into one world-class golf course and one world-class host of corporate tents, luxury boxes and merchandise booths, although the line of demarcation isn’t necessary drawn between their borders already.

Davis admitted that while the plan is to hold the entire tournament on the South Course, there’s certainly a chance it could also bleed into part of the soon-to-be renovated North Course.

“When we selected this site, we really did it with the idea that we would be focused on the South Course,” he explained. “But having said that, I don't think we would necessarily right now tell you with 100 percent certainty we won't do a composite.”

Course conditions are a factor, too. On a track where Woods and Mediate reached the playoff after playing the first 72 holes at 1 under on what was contested as a par-71, Davis revealed that the USGA might actually need to make the course more playable for the impending U.S. Open.

“One of the things that I found walking the golf course is it's actually become a narrower golf course since the U.S. Open,” he said. “I think one of the things we would do is widen out the fairways a little bit, and there's several cases where some of the roughs are covering up the fairway bunkers. So I think it's minor little tweaks like that. But I really don't foresee any big things being done.”

Those things should certainly be major considerations for any major venue, though perhaps not as much as the competitive environment itself.

The first time – and last time – the U.S. Open was held at Torrey Pines, we were treated to a tournament for the ages. That result shouldn’t have left it a no-brainer to return in the not-too-distant future, but it should have helped the process move along more swiftly.

And that’s exactly what happened when the USGA went in search of filling its next open date. Let’s chalk this one up as a victory not only for the organization, the competitors and the fans, but for common sense, too.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.