The US Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
HOW quickly things can change.
On May 14, Phil Mickelson received a special exemption from the USGA into the 121st U.S. Open Championship at Torrey Pines. Nine days later, Mickelson rendered his invite redundant by winning the PGA Championship, in the process becoming the oldest man ever to win a major. Mickelson, of course, has a special relationship with his national championship, having finished runner-up on six occasions. It is the only title he requires to complete the career grand slam and all the pre-tournament noise will surround his bid to finally put that right.
His victory at Kiawah Island comes with a five-year exemption into the U.S. Open, which means he will also be teeing it up in 2022 at The Country Club in Brookline; in 2023 at The Los Angeles Country Club; in 2024 at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, where he recorded the first of his record six runner-up finishes, to Payne Stewart in 1999; and in 2025 at Oakmont Country Club.
“Phil Mickelson’s incredible USGA playing record and overall career achievements are among the most noteworthy in the game’s history,” said USGA CEO Mike Davis in announcing the special exemption for 2021. “We are thrilled to welcome him to this year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.”
Mickelson has recorded ten top-10 finishes in his 29 U.S. Open starts. He won the 1990 U.S. Amateur Championship and was a member of the 1989 and 1991 USA Walker Cup Teams and the 1990 USA World Amateur Team.
“Winning the U.S. Open has been a lifelong and elusive dream, and I’ve come close so many times,” said Mickelson, a San Diego native. “You can’t win if you don’t play. I’m honored and appreciative of the USGA for the opportunity and look forward to playing in my hometown on a golf course I grew up on.”
Mickelson is one of 12 players to capture three of the four men’s major titles, and he seeks to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and become just the sixth in history to win all four majors. Among his 55 career professional victories are six majors – the 2004, 2006, and 2010 Masters, the 2005 and 2021 PGA Championships, and the 2013 Open Championship. In addition, Mickelson has represented the USA on 12 Ryder Cup teams and 12 Presidents Cup squads.
So can he really pull of another improbable victory at Torrey Pines? Probably not - but don’t tell him that. The truth is that his incredible win came from absolutely nowhere. Of course, with the magical short game he possesses, if Mickelson can keep the ball in play at Torrey Pines in the same manner he achieved at Kiawah Island then anything is possible, but the odds are heavily stacked against him.
You only have to look at the strength of the field to understand the size of the task he faces. Torrey Pines hosts the Farmers Insurance Open every year but this will be a very different course, with the greens likes glass and plenty of penal rough. When the tournament was played here in 2008 the average score was in excess of 74 and only two men managed to break par - Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate. It required 91 holes to separate them, with Woods achieving his 14 major victory on a broken leg.
Sadly, there will be no Woods this year as he continues his recovery from the injuries he received in a car crash earlier this year. But Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, world No1 Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, former Farmers Insurance champion Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele, Daniel Berger, Collin Morikawa, Partick Cantlay et al will all be battling to win the third men's major of the season.
Like Kiawah Island, this is a punishing course that demands accuracy from the tee. Sadly that probably rule out Rory McIlroy. But we said the same thing ahead of last year’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot and DeChambeau defied the odds by bullying that fearsome layout into submission, and who is to say that he won’t do precisely the same thing again.
I have said this before, and probably will do so again, but a major victory for Schauffele is long overdue. He has played consistently enough this season without being able to find a win but he is far too good a player not to win a major at some point. He drives the ball long and straight, has a wonderful touch with his wedges and is one of the best clutch putters on the PGA Tour. In other words, he has everything you need to win the US Open.
Rahm will feel that his Farmers Insurance victory here gives him an advantage and, like Schauffele, he is overdue a maiden major success. But I still have questions about his temperament, especially on a golf course that requires patience - and all US Open venues call for patience.
Speaking of first-time winners, Viktor Hovland will be licking his lips when he stands on the first tee because if ever there was a course that was made for him, this is it. And unlike Rahm, Hovland possesses patience in abundance. When things go wrong - and they are always going to go wrong in this infuriating game - he simply shrugs his shoulders, smiles and moves on to the next shot. In other words, he is everything that Rahm is not. Your correspondent cannot wait to see how he fares in the Ryder Cup later this year.
When it comes to European prospects, the harsh truth is that the usual prospects simply don’t appear to be playing well enough. Would you put money on Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Justin Rose or Matt Wallace to win this week? Matthew Fitzpatrick may be a different matter. There are few straighter hitters in the game, and even fewer better putters. He is fast becoming one of golf’s nearly men, gridding out plenty of top 10 finishes, but Torrey Pines really should suit his game.
Torrey Pines South Course was designed by William Bell and redesigned by Rees Jones in 2001. As the name suggests, it features an abundance of pine trees as well as plenty of mature eucalyptus trees. The rough will be thick and the greens will be like lightning. Accuracy is everything.
It was won in 2015 by Jordan Spieth, in 2016 by Dustin Johnson, in 2017 and 2018 by Brooks Koepka, in 2019 by Gary Woodland and last year by Bryson DeChambeau.
Jon Rahm missed his first cut of the season at the Wells Fargo, but finished joint eighth at the PGA. It was his 10th top-10 finish of the season. Xander Schauffele missed the cut at Kiawah Island but he has enjoyed, if that’s the right word, three runner-up finishes in 2020-21 and was third at The Masters. Viktor Hovland is a machine, winning once, finishing second twice and third twice. He will shrug off his missed cut at Kiawah Island.
HOW TO WATCH
Wednesday, June 16
US Open preview show, Sky Sports Golf, 8pm, 11pm
Thursday, June 17
First round, Sky Sports Golf 3.30pm; Sky Sports Main Event 6.45pm
Friday, June 18
Second round, Sky Sports Golf, 3.30pm; Sky Sports Main Event 6.30pm
Saturday, June 19
Third round, Sky Sports Golf, 4pm; Sky Sports Main Event 6pm
Sunday, June 20
Final round, Sky Sports Golf, 3pm; Sky Sports Main Event 6.30pm
Xander Schauffele. No weaknesses.
Jon Rahm. All depends on whether he can keep his cool.
Viktor Hovland. A major champion in waiting.
Five to Follow:
Xander Schauffele. Overdue his first major.
Jon Rahm. Has every shot in the book.
Viktor Hovland. Cool as a cucumber.
Paul Casey. Popeye still has the game to win his first major.
Jordan Spieth. Still doesn’t have his A-game but now enjoying top-10 finishes for fun.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout. Hugely underrated.
Garrick Higgo. Fabulous prospect.
Matthew Fitzpatrick. As steady as they come.
Jason Kokrak. Now a two-time winner on Tour and full of confidence. And he can putt.
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