SAN DIEGO – Saturday at Torrey Pines didn’t quite match the theatrics of the 2008 U.S. Open, but the third-round action here still produced some mouthwatering storylines.
OK, so it’s not the ’08 edition, when Tiger Woods was hobbling around on one leg while staked to a 54-hole lead, with Europe’s finest player, Lee Westwood, a shot back and everyman Rocco Mediate looking to play the role of spoiler.
Here are the five best storylines heading into a Sunday that, with three tied for the lead and 14 players separated by four shots, should produce plenty of drama:
Can Rory end his major-less drought?
No one – especially not McIlroy – could have foreseen a seven-year-and-counting lapse after sweeping the last two majors of 2014. At the time he was the best player in the world with a seemingly limitless future. He’s had 12 top-10s since the 2014 PGA but no victories and surprisingly few realistic chances. Asked how’d rank being close Sunday to some of the other opportunities over the past decade, he legitimately paused, trying to wrack his brain over the last solid chance gone by.
Over the past few years he’s tried everything: Treating a major like any other tournament, then treating it like it’s the most important thing in the world. Focusing more, then trying less. Nothing solved the riddle. Typically it’s been a slow start that has derailed his chances; in his past 17 majors entering this week, he’d broken par in the opening round just four times. But he got on the board here early with a solid 70, then played his best round of the week Saturday with a third-round 67 that put him just two back.
Is he playing as well as his halcyon days of ’14? No, of course not. But it might not matter. If he can play with the freedom and commitment that has been lacking over the past seven years, there’s little reason to think he can’t earn major No. 5 on Sunday.
Will Bryson silence Brooks (and all the mouthy fans) by going back to back?
Before Koepka came along in 2017 and ’18, no player had won consecutive U.S. Opens since Curtis Strange nearly 30 years prior. DeChambeau can accomplish the feat with the same brand of smashmouth golf that made him a runaway winner just nine months ago at Winged Foot.
At the start of the week DeChambeau was clear about his strategy: Hit as far as he can, then go find it. That worked well last fall at notoriously difficult Winged Foot, where he quickly realized that the fairways were so firm and angled that everyone was missing them. He determined that he might as well pound it as high and as far as he can, giving himself the shortest club and stopping the ball on the firm greens because of his steep angle of descent.
“I think the Winged Foot play is kind of what’s going on this week so far,” he said Saturday night at Torrey Pines. So that means wailing away on driver, knowing that if he misses, it’s likely to be well off-line – in thick rough that is usually trampled down by fans. That strategy worked to perfection on Saturday, where he carded a third-round 68 and didn’t drop a shot – his first bogey-free round in a major.
“I feel like I’m starting to understand major-championship golf and how to play it and how to go about managing my game, my attitude and just my patience level,” he said. “If I can continue to do that, I think I’ll have a good chance.”
Of course, he’ll also have to drown out the Brooksy Bros, who continue to tease, heckle and taunt him in the wake of that viral video. DeChambeau played down the distraction, saying “it’s so much fun” and that he can’t wait for the day that he and Koepka are paired in a tournament.
For now, he’ll merely have to settle for a date with Scottie Scheffler.
Can Matthew Wolff really pull this off?
Back from a two-month break to address his mental health, Wolff admitted that he thought he’d finish dead last at Torrey Pines. Instead, he’s in a tie for sixth, just three shots off the lead.
For much of the past three days Wolff has once again looked the part of the rising superstar: He’s mauling his tee shots. He’s skying his irons. And he’s pouring in putts in the 15- to 25-foot range. Most critically, though, he’s maintained the positive attitude on the course that’s been missing since the fall. A third-round 73 was Wolff’s worst score of the week but he said he never let himself get too frustrated or down on himself. That, to him, was progress.
“At the end of the day, coming into this week, I wasn’t really expecting much, and I’m in an amazing spot,” he said. “I’m already putting a huge checkmark on this week and trying to build on it.”
As bad as he’s looked over the past nine months, his play this week was a much-needed reminder of his monstrous talent.
Will Rahm’s overload of perspective translate to victory?
Ah, what would be a cleaner storyline on Sunday that Rahm, a new dad, winning one for young Kepa on Father’s Day – and a few weeks after having arguably the best performance of his career ended early because of a positive COVID-19 test.
That one writes itself.
Sure, Rahm has handled all of that adversity with maturity, grace and poise, but still we want more. Rarely does an interview pass without some reporter bringing up his temper, even though he’s years – plural – removed from his last on-course tantrum. Now 26, he’s softened and grown more comfortable in his skin. Any outburst of emotion is usually quelled in a matter of moments.
But Rahm won’t win on Sunday because he now has a greater appreciation for life outside the ropes. It’s because he’s in form and ready. He has learned from his past chances. His game has no weaknesses. And this is a place he loves, both the site of his first Tour victory and the place where he proposed to his now-wife Kelley. There’s a reason why he was the oddsmakers’ favorite – all signs were pointing to a breakthrough here.
Can King Louie put to rest his second-place scaries?
Think about this: Louis Oosthuizen was 27 – the same age now as Jordan Spieth – when he romped at St. Andrews at the 2010 Open Championship. Reflecting on how he’s changed over the past 11 years, he laughed.
“I think I was too dumb, really, to get nervous and to know what was going on,” he said.
Now 38, the majors since have taught him plenty – about heartbreak. Over the past decade he has completed the Grand Slam of Runners-Up, finishing second in the Masters (playoff loss, 2012), PGA Championship (2017, ’19), U.S. Open (2015) and Open Championship (playoff loss, 2015).
For a man with arguably the sweetest swing in the game, it still doesn’t compute that he has won 14 times around the globe but never in the U.S. He’s kicked away two chances in the past two months, first in the two-man team event at the Zurich and then last month at the PGA Championship, where he shared the halfway lead with Phil Mickelson but shot 72-73 on the weekend to – you guessed it – finish second again.
• Can Mackenzie Hughes come out of nowhere to win golf’s toughest test?: He entered the week with five consecutive missed cuts. He didn’t play the weekend in six of seven career major appearances. And now he’s tied for the lead, in the final group. A small tweak in ball position has him consistently playing a cut, and he poured in a Tiger-esque bomb on the 13th green Saturday to shoot 68.
• Is DJ still the world’s best?: The undisputed world No. 1, who not long ago was in the midst of a historic hot streak, hasn’t done much of anything since winning in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and he actually missed the cut in the first two majors of the year. (He’s the record-holder for the most missed cuts in majors while ranked No. 1, with four.) He birdied the last two holes to card a 68 and lurks just four back.
• Will Xander win a home game?: OK, so his putting experiment hasn’t worked. A top-10 putter on Tour, he switched to the armlock putting method a few weeks ago and even implemented a new green-reading technique in which he assumes the pushup position. All of that was supposed to make the difference in taking Schauffele from a very good to a great player, but it has backfired so far at Torrey Pines, where he has lost strokes to the field each round on the greens and ranks 60th in the field. Still: He’s just four back, and the putter is due to cooperate at some point ... right?
• Can Russell Henley fairway-and-green this place to death?: Maybe it’s not the sexiest storyline, but Henley is plenty good enough to nab a big one. He was a stud in college, earning the Haskins Award. He won a pro event as an amateur. He won in his first start on Tour. And he’s continued to get better each and every year, now sitting just outside the top 50 in the world and ranking seventh on Tour in strokes gained: approach. When asked why he believed he was now ready to win his first major at age 32, he replied: “I don’t have to have it.” What a healthy perspective. This was refreshing, too: Almost everyone in the field has their manager waiting for them in the media flash area, waiting to hand them a fancy watch or pat their back or escort them to each and every interview stop, even though they’re all located within a few feet of each other. But not Henley, who made the rounds without an entourage. Asked why he was flying solo (he’s had the same agent for about a decade), he said: “They know I don’t like having my hand held.” Sounds like a guy who has the maturity and toughness to handle U.S. Open Sunday.