Forelinx Fantasy Golf Preview ⏤ U.S. Open Championship

Fantasy Golf

Torrey Pines1

With the Masters Tournament and the PGA Championship in the books, the 2021 major championship season continues this week with the 121st playing of the U.S. Open Championship at Torrey Pines GC (South) in beautiful La Jolla, California. While Bryson Dechambeau might be the defending champion on the heels of his win in the fall playing of the 2020 Open at Winged Foot (West), those memories are likely to take a backseat to the memory we all have of the last time the U.S. Open came to Torrey Pines in 2008. Tiger Woods bagged his fourteenth major that week in spite of two stress fractures in his left tibia and a torn ACL in his left knee.

Tiger's win in that U.S. Open might have been the greatest staging of the championship in the modern era. Woods overcame an avalanche of adversity that week between the injuries to his left leg as well as the self-inflicted wounds of his poor starts. He played his opening hole of the week in +7 for the championship (three double bogeys, one bogey) and spent every day trying to claw his way back into the golf tournament with anything but a game or a body firing on all cylinders. He drove the ball all over the golf course at times, spent a fair bit of the championship doubled over in pain from the injuries to his leg and made all kinds of uncharacteristic mistakes that seemed destined to sink his chances.

Nevertheless, in spite of the hurdles he had to overcome, Tiger put on the kind of show that only Tiger in his prime could deliver. When it looked like he might fall out of contention early on Friday, Woods put together an electric second nine of 30 coming home playing alongside the world's number 2 (Phil Mickelson) and number 3 (Adam Scott) players in front of historically large galleries. Saturday followed a similar pattern with Woods off to an awful start and forced to claw his way back into the championship on his second side. He hooped a 50+ foot putt on 13 for eagle, chipped in from the rough on 17 for birdie and then buried a 30 footer for his second eagle of the side on the home hole to take the outright lead into Sunday. 

Thanks to another poor start and a stiff challenge from journeyman Rocco Mediate, Woods came to the last again on Sunday needing a birdie to force a Monday playoff. As he always seemed to do in that era, Tiger delivered with an epic putt on the final green that had the superstar screaming to the heavens as NBC's Dan Hicks wondered if we should expect anything different and Rocco muttered "I knew he'd make it. Unbelievable."

Tiger and Rocco battled to a draw for eighteen holes on Monday, but the championship finally came to what felt in hindsight like its inevitable conclusion on the 91st hole. Mediate drove the ball left into a fairway bunker and could never recover, and Tiger's par was good enough to win the sudden death playoff and seal perhaps the most incredible win of his career. If Torrey Pines can deliver a tournament half as good as the one it produced the last time we were here, we will be in for some treat over this upcoming weekend.

The Field and the Favorites

Unfortunately, thanks to his car accident earlier in the year, Tiger Woods will not be on hand to remind us of the magic he authored here in 2008. However, he is the lone missing piece in an otherwise stacked field that appears to be as wide open as any in recent memory. While Jon Rahm is a surprisingly heavy favorite (+1000 and 700 points ahead of the next challenger), he enters the week with a COVID-induced question mark in the wake of what happened at the Memorial Tournament. Rahm was six shots clear of the field and appeared to be cruising to a win after a Saturday 64, but a positive COVID test forced an automatic withdrawal that almost assuredly cost him the W at Jack's tournament. In addition to the form he showed there just a few weeks ago, he's also shown a capacity to succeed at Torrey Pines having won the Farmers Insurance Open here in 2017 and finishing runner-up in 2020.

Behind Rahm, there is a stack of eight players who are all priced between +1700 and +2200 to win the championship. The top three players in that group at +1700 feature three former U.S. Open champions including Brooks Koepka (winner in 2017 and 2018), Dustin Johnson (winner in 2016) and the defending champion Bryson Dechambeau. Of those three, it's hard not to fancy Koepka above the other two as the two-time champion is coming off a run at the PGA Championship that yielded a T2 finish in spite of a balky putter. The brawny golf course should suit his game and if Koepka can get his putter together we would expect him to contend.

DJ and Brooks are fades for us among those three players as both bring areas of concern into the championship. While DJ may have had an incredible summer in 2020, it feels like that player has come and gone as the 2016 U.S. Open champion has shown all kinds of inconsistency lately. His T10 finish last week at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree was his first top-ten finish since February at Riviera and he has missed the cut in both his Masters Tournament title defense and the PGA Championship a few weeks ago. Dechambeau has fared better than DJ of late with more top-ten finishes (including a win at Bay Hill) and two made cuts at both majors, but his driving is not likely to be the asset around Torrey Pines that it was at Winged Foot. This golf course (and its formidable kikuyu rough) is far less likely to enable the bomb-and-gouge style that Dechambeau utilized so effectively last fall.

The next five players packed between +1800 and +2200 features a mix of some big names that find themselves a lot farther down the board than one might expect and some emerging contenders who are heavier favorites than they might be used to. At the head of the pack is Xander Schauffele (+1800) who finds himself ahead of contenders like Justin Thomas (+2200) and Rory McIlroy (+2000) for what might be the first time in his career. While the San Diego native is yet to win this championship, he's accumulated an awfully impressive record in his first four tries at U.S. Open competition. He finished T5 at Erin Hills in 2017, T6 at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, T3 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in 2019 and solo 5th last fall at Winged Foot. His game is suited perfectly for the style a U.S. Open generally requires and we expect him to be in the mix heading into the weekend at Torrey Pines.

Schauffele is ahead of players like Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy for good reason as we're fading both of those superstars coming into this week. While Rory has won recently (just a little over a month ago at Quail Hollow Club), he managed to do so in spite of a driver that has become far less reliable than he's been used to for most of his career. He finished second-to-last in the field in driving accuracy that week and if he can't get the ball into the fairway this week he'll need the ungodly putting performance we saw from Tiger in 2008 to give himself a chance. Sadly, Rory has rarely brought that kind of putting performance to the main stage in a major championship and we're not expecting to see him contend this week.

Justin Thomas hit nearly every single green en route to a Sunday 68 that won him the Players Championship back in March, but the clinic he put on that day yielded him the most recent top-ten finish we've seen out of the 2017 PGA Champion. He finished T21 at the Masters Tournament, T13 at the Valspar Championship and T26 at the Wells Fargo Championship thereafter, but has struggled in the three starts since then. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship and then has failed to crack the top 40 finishers in either of the two starts at Colonial or Muirfield Village. His putter has been awfully cold and his ballstriking seems to have regressed since the high water mark on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass. He hasn't seemed to play his best in the majors lately either and for all of those reasons we're not particularly bullish on his chances at Torrey Pines.

The Golf Course

Torrey Pines may well be a Billy Bell original design, but much of the DNA of the South Course at Torrey Pines as it is presented now comes from the redesign(s) done by Rees Jones both back in 2001 and then again in 2019 in preparation for this year's championship. The course is an absolute brute from the championship tees, measuring over 7650 yards and playing at sea level to an effective yardage that is likely a few hundred yards more than that. The fairways have been narrowed and the rough is expected to be up and those two dynamics work in concert with a number of pushed-up greens to place even more emphasis on the ability to drive the ball long and straight.

The greens themselves are not particularly large in size to begin with, but a lot of their effective size is diminished by the fact that a number of the greens are split into smaller sections that require even more precision on the approach shots. Moreover, like many Rees Jones designs, nearly all of the surrounding bunkers defend the greens both by way of their depth as well as the fact that the putting surfaces slope downhill from the bunker's edge to the nearest hole location. These principles work together to create an exacting challenge on the approach shots as players not only need to find small sections in the greens to yield great birdie opportunities but also pay a higher premium for aggressive mistakes as short-side misses result in extremely tricky recovery shots.

Viewers this week will hear a lot about the poa annua grass on the greens as this West Coast putting surface is among the trickiest to putt. The grass grows quickly, tends to bud late in the afternoons and these two dynamics create uneven putting surfaces that even the best in the world can struggle with. Even Woods, in the wake of his incredible putt on the 72nd green in the 2008 U.S. Open, commented on how difficult it was to bury it given the state of the greens in the late afternoon. "It was a little wobbly down there," Tiger said, adding that "once it starts rolling, it's kind of like playing Plinko, you don't know what's going to happen."

Given that the golf course has no short par-threes and just a single par-four under 400 yards, the key holes for the week are going to be the three par-fives that include the famous home hole. They will almost assuredly play as the three easiest holes during the championship and present the only real "easy" birdie opportunities. The ninth measures 609 yards and players will have to fit a driver between the two bunkers that pinch in at the landing area in order to give themselves an outside shot at reaching the green in two shots. This feat can certainly be accomplished as the hole plays slightly downhill, but a new cross bunker added just 60 yards short of the putting surface will dance on the minds of those who are unsure if they can belt a fairway wood the required distance.

The thirteenth hole was pivotal in the result of the 2008 U.S. Open and is likely to play a major role coming down the stretch again this year as well. The hole measures 612 yards from the farthest back tee and is a lot harder to reach than the ninth, but variable teeing areas are likely to result in the thirteenth being reachable for at least two or more of the championship rounds. In 2008, this hole marked two major turning points in the round for Tiger Woods as his eagle here Saturday helped get him back into the mix just as he was beginning to lose touch with the leaders again. On Sunday, Woods pull-hooked his second shot into the arroyo on the left and made an untimely bogey that opened the door for Rocco Mediate and necessitated the famous putt at 18 that he had to make just to get into a playoff.

The home hole is a very classic risk/reward five-par and if the championship is at all close coming down the stretch it will play a major role in deciding who walks away the U.S. Open champion. It measures a very gettable 568 yards, but the tee shot needs to be fit in between a crop of bunkers on the left and a bunker on the right. Players who find the fairway will almost assuredly have a chance to reach the green in two shots, but anyone in the fairway bunkers will have almost no hope of reaching and will be forced to lay up the way Woods did on Sunday in 2008. Devlin's Billabong guards the front of the putting surface and a watery grave aways the player who comes up short on his second shot or overspins a third shot off the front of the green. Don't be surprised to see everything here from doubles or worse thanks to the pond and eagles thanks to the green's funneling effects to front hole locations.

The weather is going to be as close to a non factor as possible during the course of this year's championship. Abundant Southern California sunshine is expected throughout the course of the week with temperatures comfortably into the 70s and maybe even reaching into the 80s on Saturday. There is expected to be very little wind throughout the course of the week, but the heavy sea air may well make 5-10 miles an hour of wind feel more like 10-15 miles an hour. If the wind does kick up, expect it to come from offshore and turn a very difficult golf course with no wind into a real bear in the breeze.