SAN DIEGO – The headline left little to the imagination: “Bland leads at monotonous Torrey Pines.” Armchair architects everywhere spoke last week and what they had to say about the South Course was none too kind.
This distaste came despite another compelling finish and a leaderboard that covered every corner of the competitive landscape – from superstars like your champion Jon Rahm to endearing journeyman Richard Bland. The U.S. Open and Torrey Pines lived up to its meritocracy billing. You know: From many, one.
Yet despite all the Sunday fireworks and Rahm’s dramatic birdie-birdie finish, those who nitpick golf course design had no interest in “monotonous Torrey Pines.”
It turns out a collection of straightaway 500-plus yard par 4s are about as architecturally compelling as a pile of dirt and the South Course has more than its share of brutishly simple holes. This isn’t Merion or Winged Foot or Pebble Beach and to those who pay attention to such things, that matters.
But it also matters what the players think and to a man, the testimonials couldn’t have been more glowing.
“This one is spectacular. Torrey Pines was a superstar,” Paul Casey said. “But you can still set it up badly if you're not careful, and they didn't. It was a great championship.”
And that’s from a man who’d just played his final eight holes in 2 over par.
“It was great. I love anytime we're on the West Coast, and I love being in California. Props to them,” Collin Morikawa said. “The setup was great. It never got baked out. I think, you look at the weather - weather is really dependent on that, whether the greens are going to get really dry and bouncy. I thought it played well.”
Even Phil Mickelson, whose relationship with Torrey Pines has been complicated ever since Rees Jones redesigned the South Course in 2001, applauded not only the USGA but also his hometown course.
“I think this course here has been a great site, and the length and the overall difficulty, in general, and the great weather allowed them to do whatever they wanted to showcase this tournament,” Mickelson said.
While many will fixate on what some see as an uninspired layout, those who play the championship instead see an eclectic leaderboard that didn’t reward a particular style of play. Your second-round co-leader, Bland, finished 57th in driving distance while Rahm was 12th.
“You have guys who are long hitters, guys who are short hitters, a lot of different strategies, and it comes down to execution. It hasn't limited everybody, like everybody's had a chance if they play well,” Mickelson said.
The architecture angle, or maybe it’s architecture anger, is worth acknowledging after what most celebrated as another successful week. It took more than dozen years for the USGA to return to Torrey Pines after the 2008 U.S. Open, a championship that set the modern standard for drama and entertainment when Tiger Woods limped to an overtime victory on a Monday.
There have been quiet indications that the USGA is considering a championship “rotation” like that used by The Open. Although officials declined to comment on those rumors, they also didn’t deny them.
“Nick Price said a few years ago on our championship committee, he said, 'You know, it's important where the players win their U.S. Open,'” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships. “I would just say buckle up because there's really some cool things coming. I would say that on both sides, of the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women's Open.”
In a line up dominated by the Winged Foots and Pinehursts of the golf world, it’s easy to see how Torrey Pines could find itself on the outside looking into such a championship rotation.
The USGA loves the West Coast and a primetime finish in the east and the public golf experiment has been good for the game, if not the championship. Logistically, Torrey Pines also seems to check all the right boxes. But is the South Course U.S. Open worthy?
The sprawling layout is big and brutish and doesn’t need to be tricked up to test the game’s best, but it does lack the nuance of other U.S. Open venues.
To be entirely honest, the toughest part of the week was parking each day in the middle of the North Course, which was transformed into a parking lot/tent city/logistics hub and is, by any measure, the more enjoyable of Torrey Pines’ layouts.
Maybe the South Course is monotonous, but it’s also authored two of the championship’s most compelling finishes and if officials are considering a U.S. Open rotation, Torrey Pines needs to be in the heart of that line up.