U.S. Open 2021: Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau lead 10 storylines at Torrey Pines

Though not much time has passed since an epic PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, which Phil Mickelson won to take home his sixth major, it’s already time for the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Somehow, we’ve already reached the third of four majors this year, which seems wild as the golf season is rolling right by.

Mickelson will play, of course, and is one of the preeminent storylines at Torrey where his contemporary, a guy by the name of Tiger Woods, stands as the only man to win a major at this course when he beat Rocco Mediate in an 18-hole playoff in 2008. That one will go down as one of the best majors ever, and after what has transpired so far this season, this one has a lot to live up to. 

There is no shortage of storylines heading into a monster U.S. Open week, and these are 10 that stand out with USGA’s crown jewel once again upon us. 

1. Lefty’s slam bid: This would not have made my list as recently as five weeks ago. However, after Mickelson shockingly (historically? unbelievably?) won the PGA Championship at Kiawah, actual discussion of him possibly winning a U.S. Open does not seem as far-fetched as it has for most of the last half-decade. Remember, prior to his PGA win, Mickelson needed (and received) a special exemption just to get into this field. He has just one top-25 finish since 2010.

His game and abilities have not aged as well here as they have in the other three majors (his least recent top 10 at any of the four majors is at the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013), but there is now some hope where there has previously not been much of it at this tournament. For Mickelson to win one major at age 50 is astonishing. For him to win two in a row in his 50s (he turns 51 on Wednesday) — with the second being the one he needs for the career grand slam — would be one of the great sports stories of all time.

2. What USGA does to the course: You could make the argument — some have made the argument — that the modern game has outpaced U.S. Open setups in ways that disproportionately favor the biggest hitters in the world. The last five champions of this tournament — Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka (twice), Gary Woodland and Bryson DeChambeau — would seem to confirm this notion. I’m sure the USGA will again set up Torrey Pines with the thickest rough imaginable, which will again likely constitute a mini tournament between, like, eight guys. Here’s why that happens, according to Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg.

You can predict the behavior of thick, lush, five-inch rough as long as you drive it far enough to have a wedge or a short iron in your hands most of the time. The ball simply comes out dead and knuckles up to the green. Conversely, the same rough is devastating for shorter hitters, who won’t often be using high-lofted clubs and don’t have the requisite swing speed to power through the thick stuff.

This result is only true when fairways are so narrow that everyone is missing them. Last year, DeChambeau said he has an advantage if they make the fairways too wide or too narrow (and they did the latter). Course setup — specifically landing areas off the tee — matters more at the U.S. Open than any of the other majors so it’s something to monitor from both a viewing (and gambling) standpoint going into the week.

3. Koepka as one of the great U.S. Open golfers ever: It’s a big week for golfers who played in the final pairing at Kiawah on Sunday in Round 4. Koepka goes into Torrey, like he went into Kiawah, coming off a missed cut at an average event the week before. He also goes in looking for U.S. Open No. 3, which would tie him with Tiger and Hale Irwin. Only Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan have won more than that since World War II. I repeat, if Koepka wins this week, he ties Woods and Irwin — with only Hogan and Nicklaus ahead of him — in U.S. Open victories. That’s monumental, and a three-win stretch over the course of five years would cement him as one of the great U.S. Open golfers of all time. A monumental potential achievement for him at the age of 31.

4. Jon Rahm’s wild month: After being forced to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament, which he led by six strokes after 54 holes, Rahm tweeted over the weekend that he’s been cleared to practice at Torrey Pines at the start of the week (it was previously thought that he might not be allowed to arrive until Tuesday or Wednesday). He’s the favorite because he’s won a tournament here, he’s been the most consistently solid golfer throughout 2021 and he’s coming off one of the great three-round PGA Tour performances of the last few years. What he does (or does not do) will be a big deal in the world of golf, and all of it will be exacerbated by the fact that we are officially entering the, “It’s about time for Jon Rahm to start contending in major championships, right?” stage of his career.

5. 5-0 for Collin Morikawa: The U.S. Open is Morikawa’s 50th career PGA Tour start. If he wins, his collection over the first 50 will include five victories, two majors and two losses in playoffs at other events. In other words, it will be one of the most successful starts to a career in the modern era. This just does not happen. To put it in perspective, Tiger won six times (one major) in his first 50 starts on the PGA Tour (to be fair, several of those were as a teenage amateur). We are underrating Morikawa’s resume to date, but if he takes either of the two remaining majors this year, it’s going to be time to elevate him into a category where we’re thinking about him less like his contemporaries and more in the historical context of guys like Rory McIlroy and Koepka.

6. Bryson’s best chance: It’s been quiet (for him) recently, but DeChambeau should low-key be the favorite at this tournament every year if the USGA continues to set it up like it seems like they will (narrow fairways, thick rough). His length is always overwhelming, but it is disproportionately dominant at this type of tournament. Just like Jordan Spieth has owned Augusta National for the last eight years, I think DeChambeau is about to start doing the same at the U.S. Open, no matter where it goes. There will be more variation in where he finishes on the leaderboard than there is with Spieth at the Masters, but unless the USGA vastly changes its architectural strategy, DeChambeau is almost certainly going to crush at this event.

7. Brooks-Bryson beef: We have talked about them individually, but now we need to talk about their current feud. Much has happened since the last major championship — some of it nonsense, almost all of it on social media — and two of the biggest stars on the planet (as well as two favorites to win this tournament) are locked in a “fans love me more” tussle with one another. This is a sidebar to the actual tournament, but depending on how everything goes — whether they get paired together or we get true contention from both of them at the same event for the first time — the sub-story and the main story could merge together into one of the great stories of 2021.

8. Tiger always looms large: You will see the most famous 12-foot putt in the history of golf roughly 23,000 times this week. Woods’ 2008 victory here at the only other U.S. Open in course history will be commemorated with a plaque this week. Strangely, 13 years later, you could now argue that it is neither his most improbable win (2019 Masters) nor his most famous (1997 Masters). Regardless, it remains one of the great feats in golf history, and I hope this year’s event comes even halfway to matching it.

9. A different Torrey: It’s rare to get a major championship at a venue where the PGA Tour travels to every year. However, it’s going to look a lot different than it did when Patrick Reed took the Farmers Insurance Open in January. Xander Schauffele said recently that he’s been trying to not play it because he did not want to play until the USGA was done prepping it for the third major of 2021, and Koepka’s recent remarks at the Palmetto Championship leave a lot of ambiguity going into the final major week in the U.S. until next year’s Masters.

“They can do whatever they want with that golf course,” said Koepka. “They can saturate it, or they can have that thing rock hard. I won’t know until I get there, but it will be interesting. I think it’s going to play completely different than what we normally see.”

10. Can Torrey match Augusta and Kiawah? Two 2021 majors so far have produced two astounding outcomes. Hideki Matsuyama’s win at Augusta National will have influential reverberation for decades around the world, and Lefty’s victory at Kiawah is one of the great major wins in the modern game. I’m not sure how anything tops those. I’m not sure how anything even matches them. However, when our expectations are the lowest and ambiguity among the top players high, that’s usually when the game surprises us the most. That’s been true in the past. That’s been true at majors this year. That’s been true at Torrey Pines before. I hope it’s true again at this U.S. Open.

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