The U.S. Open arrives with plenty of drama. Jon Rahm has been in isolation since having to leave the Memorial. Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka have been feuding. And there’s Phil Mickelson, fresh off his improbable win at the PGA Championship, arriving in his hometown searching for that elusive U.S. Open title.
So, no, there is no shortage of storylines for the week ahead.
How will the layoff after his positive COVID-19 test and withdrawal from the Memorial impact Jon Rahm’s chances to win his first major?
Bob Harig: He tested negative two days in a row last week, meaning he got to leave isolation prior to the 10-day quarantine period. That’s far better than getting stuck in Ohio until Tuesday without the ability to appropriately practice. Those concerns should be gone. Rahm’s game is in excellent shape, as noted by his 65-64 scores before testing positive. And as long as he had no symptoms, he should be good to go. Rahm knows the course (he won there in 2017), and he will be highly motivated.
Michael Collins: Luckily, he now has the time to prepare. The U.S. Open is not the place you want to play catch-up in preparation. No time to be stressed, just play.
Mark Schlabach: As long as he remains asymptomatic, I don’t think it’s going to bother him much. If anything, I could see the situation motivating Rahm even more as he attempts to win his first major. Remember that Rahm didn’t arrive at the Masters in April until the day before the start of play; his wife gave birth to their first child the previous Saturday. He didn’t get in a practice round and said he hadn’t played Augusta National since November. Still, he played well enough to finish in a tie for seventh. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win his first major this week. He won his first PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines four years ago and putts on poa annua greens as well as almost anyone.
Kevin Van Valkenburg: I’ll take the contrarian role here and say I do think it will hurt his chances, at least somewhat. The U.S. Open is always about patience and composure, but particularly when you catch what feels like an unfair break. The one thing holding Rahm back in majors thus far has been his temperament. I don’t think he’ll actually be hurt by the limited prep, but if something goes wrong early in the championship, I suspect he’ll quickly begin to blame what he sees as the unfairness of it all. He has to figure out a way to understand that everyone gets bad breaks, not just Jon Rahm.
Tom VanHaaren: I agree it probably doesn’t impact him much, but if it does, I would think it might help him. He was playing really well with a 6-shot lead at the Memorial, so he has that confidence going into the U.S. Open. He has had success at Torrey Pines before, so I imagine he’ll focus more on the positive of how well he’s playing than not being able to finish at Memorial. If I were him, I’d be itching to get back on the course and keep the momentum I have going into a major.
Bryson DeChambeau vs. Brooks Koepka: Who has a better week?
Harig: Both players have struggled at Torrey Pines during the Farmers Insurance Open played here, but the conditions this week will be nothing like they are in January. Given Koepka’s ability to almost will himself to the top of leaderboards in major championships, he gets the advantage here against DeChambeau. Koepka gained confidence from his tie for second at the PGA Championship, and said he right knee is feeling much better. He thrives in major conditions, and look for him to do so again.
Collins: C. “None of the Above.” One guy finishing 35th and one guy finishing 40th to me is not the definition of a “better week.” The only way it gets interesting is if they end up paired together Saturday or Sunday. Now, if you positively, absolutely, must have an answer to who plays better, I’ll take Brooks right now. He’s motivated and, even though his record isn’t great at Torrey for the Farmers Insurance Open, this ain’t that tournament. No way Brooks wants to hear the social media chatter if Bryson wins. Is it wrong for me to be rooting for that?
Schlabach: Neither one of them has a great track record at the South Course, and they have largely avoided Torrey Pines throughout their careers. Koepka missed the cut there at the Farmers in 2017 and 2021; he was 41st in 2015. He was under par in only one of his previous eight rounds. DeChambeau has been even worse, missing the cut in his only two starts at the Farmers — in 2017 and 2018. I’ll go with Koepka, the four-time major champion. DeChambeau hasn’t performed well in the majors since winning at Winged Foot last year, and his form hasn’t been great since March.
Van Valkenburg: I think Bryson. I love watching Brooks, but can we be frank for a second? He hasn’t closed well in a major since the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive. He has a lot of bravado and a lot of bogeys when it counts of late. I think Bryson will have his usual advantage if everyone misses fairways, which they will. Hitting a wedge that’s the length of a 7-iron might be the game’s secret weapon at the moment.
VanHaaren: Koepka came close at the PGA Championship and as Bob pointed out, his knee is only getting stronger. If the knee isn’t an issue anymore and he’s getting back to 100 percent, I’d have to give him the edge over DeChambeau. Plus, Bryson can say he’s not bothered by fans calling him “Brooksie,” but he has been asked about it constantly and hasn’t been able to avoid it. At some point, that has to start to wear on him and knock him off his focus. I don’t know if that will impact him here, but it’s unavoidable and adding in any extra mental stress to the U.S. Open is not a good recipe for success.
Can DeChambeau bomb-and-gouge his way around Torrey Pines like he did at Winged Foot last year?
Harig: It doesn’t appear so. What he did at Winged Foot was amazing, but all indications are the rough will be far more penal at Torrey Pines. Already there are reports of 5-inch rough and very difficult lies. That can certainly change, although even if the grass is somewhat lower it won’t be easy. DeChambeau will need to find more fairways, and while he will still have some success from the rough due to his strength, he’s also got to get other aspects of his game to come around to the form they were at Winged Foot.
Collins: Nope. Torrey Pines South course is a different type of course than Winged Foot. The “bomb” part is great, but the “gouge” part doesn’t work in this type of rough. The biggest issue will be how the ball reacts coming from the rough when it lands on the greens. Bryson’s short game was amazing at Winged Foot — and has not been as good since. The expectation that it’ll magically appear again this week isn’t a great bet.
Schlabach: John Bodenhamer, the person from the USGA who sets up the course, has indicated that there will be a premium on hitting tee shots on fairways, with firm and fast poa annua greens and heavy, thick kikuyu rough, which doesn’t bode well for DeChambeau if that’s indeed the case. DeChambeau leads the tour in driving distance (322.7 yards), but he’s 172nd in driving accuracy (54.4%). Hitting approach shots onto bouncy greens out of high-and-thick rough won’t be easy, so DeChambeau can’t bomb away and has to hit fairways.
Van Valkenburg: I think there is this misperception that all Bryson did is nuke the ball at Winged Foot. He was third in the field in strokes gained/approach, second in strokes gained/around the green and second in strokes gained/putting. The fact that he’s quietly become a top-10 putter in the game is one of the biggest surprises, even more than his prodigious length off the tee. I think if he chips and putts well, he’s a lock to finish in the top 10 and could easily repeat.
VanHaaren: I watched DeChambeau hit a 3-wood out of some pretty thick rough from 285 yards out on a par-5 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic last year. He hit a cut over some tall trees and put the ball on the front of the green. I was looking around to see if anyone else saw what he did from the rough because it was incredible. I know Torrey Pines is going to be thicker and tougher than Detroit Golf Club, but I don’t doubt he can find a way to bomb it and recover if he needs to. I don’t think he’ll have the success he did at Winged Foot, but I do think he has the confidence to stick to his blueprint.
Which favorite do you trust the least this week?
Harig: Bryson has not exactly been stellar since winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational. His lone top-10 finish was at Quail Hollow, where he left because he thought he missed the cut, returned early Saturday morning and put together a strong weekend that saw him sneak into the top 10. It was an admirable performance, but he was not in contention. And he’s been out of the top 30 in four of his past six starts.
Collins: If we’re talking betting favorites, I don’t see Rory McIlroy putting four good rounds together. Either Thursday or Saturday there’s gonna be a crash-and-burn, because that’s been his MO in majors lately.
Schlabach: DeChambeau has just one top-10 finish since March and was 38th or worse in four of his past six starts on tour. He’s attempting to become only the second player to go back-to-back at the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 (Koepka did it in 2017 and ’18). I don’t think he’ll be around for the weekend.
Van Valkenburg: Justin Thomas. He’s putting so poorly this summer, and it’s gone mostly unnoticed, but he is struggling big-time on the greens (122nd in SG/putting this year). Erin Hills is the only U.S. Open where he’s ever contended, and that was barely a U.S. Open. For someone who is clearly one of the game’s best players, he no-shows in majors far too often. Even with all Spieth’s struggles, he has contended in a major more recently than JT.
VanHaaren: Mark said pretty much everything I was going to say. I just don’t see DeChambeau winning back-to-back, and I think there are too many other golfers playing well to put my chips in on him. The other name I’d throw in there is Thomas. He finished T-42 at The Memorial, T-40 at Charles Schwab and missed the cut at the PGA Championship. Thomas has only two top-10 finishes in his six U.S. Open appearances and has missed the cut twice.
Is there a how-in-the-world-did-that-happen winner like Phil Mickelson hiding in this field?
Harig: How about Gary Woodland? It’s been just two years since he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but his game has suffered to the point that he’s dropped out of the top 50 in the world. Much of that has had to do with injury issues that he’s finally starting to overcome. Although he missed the cut at the Memorial, Woodland started showing signs at Quail Hollow, where he tied for fifth. He’s proven he has the game for tough conditions, and we shall see if he is able to get all the way back.
Collins: There’s no way a newlywed to watch. That would be 48-year-old Lee Westwood and his caddie/bride Helen Storey, who got married in Las Vegas this week. So, why not add a U.S. Open?
Schlabach: Would there be a better story than Charley Hoffman winning his first major at Torrey Pines? Hoffman, 44, was born in San Diego and attended nearby Poway High School. He was a two-time California state high school player of the year and qualified for the Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines three times as an amateur. Few players know the course as well as him; he has 71 competitive rounds there since 1994. He has four top-25s at the Farmers Insurance Open, including solo ninth in 2020.
Van Valkenburg: Does Justin Rose count? At age 40 and looking at 40-1 odds, I think he qualifies. I could see Rose contending. He would need a hot putting week, but he still has the iron game and the demeanor to pull off an unlikely second major.
VanHaaren: The way qualifying works for the U.S. Open, this is the tournament to get that type of win. Jack Fleck beat Ben Hogan in 1955 after qualifying for the tournament. Steve Jones won it in 1996 after getting in from a final qualifier and Michael Campbell beat Tiger Woods in 2005 in an improbable win. I’d love to see one of the qualifiers do it again and win. I don’t know how probable it is, but Chez Reavie was 12 under over 36 holes to play his way into the tournament. He told me he has a lot of confidence from his play and feels good about where he’s at, and he finished T-3 at the U.S. Open in 2019 at Pebble Beach. So, I’ll throw him in the ring.
Oh, about Phil: Does he have any chance this week?
Harig: This is a big ask. But his win at the PGA should provide him with confidence and a spark and the hope is that he is able to ride the momentum from Kiawah Island. Yes, he missed the cut in Fort Worth, but that was easy to understand the next week after his big win. The key is hitting both the driver and his modified 2-wood in play. He was also planning a good bit of prep time at Torrey Pines, and that should help. We didn’t give him any hope at Kiawah, but the expectations are raised here.
Collins: I’m going to say no, hoping it’ll be reverse psychology. As much as I love the guy and realize what an amazing story it’d be, Phil has more demons about the U.S. Open than Tom Brady has Super Bowl appearances. Even if Lefty finds a way to get into contention Sunday, someone will play Stewart Cink to his Tom Watson.
Schlabach: Probably not. With its narrow fairways, firm conditions and heavy rough, Torrey Pines might be too much for him. Of course, we thought the same thing about his chances at Kiawah Island.
Van Valkenburg: What’s interesting to think about, looking back at Phil’s near-miss at Winged Foot in 2006, is how poorly he drove it off the tee. It was his short game that kept him in it long enough to collapse on the last hole. He’s actually better off the tee at age 50, but worse around the greens. Could he summon a magical week with a wedge? Anything is possible, I guess. But I don’t know that I believe he can stay focused for four rounds, two majors in a row. Jack Nicklaus used to say he believed he could still hit all the shots deep into his 50s; he just couldn’t maintain razor-sharp focus for four hours.
VanHaaren: I don’t think so. It’s too big of a mental drain too close to the PGA Championship. What he did at Kiawah was unbelievable, but we shouldn’t forget that up until that win, he was going to get into the U.S. Open on a special exemption. In the 11 tournaments he has played in since January, he has missed the cut five times and only has three top-25 finishes. I don’t want to take away from what he did in the PGA Championship, but it seems highly unlikely he repeats that performance at Torrey Pines.