La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Golf Course Receives Rave Reviews from US Open Players and ‘Open Doctor’
The 121st US Open on the Torrey Pines South Course in La Jolla was decided on June 20 on the 17th par 4, 434 yards.
Jon Rahm birdieed and won. Louis Oosthuizen bugged half an hour later and lost suddenly.
But really, it was decided years earlier, when high winds and the dreaded Japanese beetle and old age wreaked havoc on the course’s namesake trees perched on the edge of the canyon lining the left side of the fairway. They were still standing when golf course designer Rees Jones embarked on his Torrey South facelift in 2001 for the US Open 2008. They were gone when he changed it again in 2018 before the return of the US Open this year.
The plan in 2001 was to use the canyons as natural hazards on as many holes as possible, building new tees, moving fairways, moving greens to the third, fourth and 14th holes. Trees prevented this at 17. The Torrey pine, which only grows here and on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, is listed as a critically endangered species.
“But they’ve been lost naturally over the years,” Jones said, “so it allowed us to move the fairway closer to the canyon at 17 than we could 20 years ago.”
Jones – aka the “Doctor Open” – spoke the day after a scintillating final round with a standings filled with the biggest names in golf. He was like an artist in awe of his creation, a father proud of his offspring. He winced as Oosthiuzen’s drive on the 17th kicked left into the canyon. He also allowed himself a knowing smile.
“I felt bad for him because he’s such a nice person,” Jones said. “But at the same time, I was happy that the makeover of the 17th hole was really the determining factor of the championship. This change that we made, it made a big difference.
Jones moved the fairway toward the edge of the canyon, with little roughness or foliage to prevent a golf ball from pouncing into the barranca. He shrunk it down where most disks land and reconfigured the bunkers on the right. He built an alternate tee lower and to the left of the original one, creating a different angle to the fairway and putting the obstacle more into play.
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What does the risk / reward ratio look like in statistics? The 17th hole produced the most birdies (52) of any par 4 of the last nine, but was No. 1 on the course in penalty strokes from the tee.
The idea is to get you thinking. Play cautiously to the right, you are in the sand or rough but have a relatively good shot at par. Aim left, you have better birdie shot but you are flirting with rattlesnakes.
Rahm went 17 behind Oosthuizen, who was playing three groups behind him, by one. He aimed his tee shot safely to the right and landed in the fairway bunker, got it on the green 25 feet to the left of the hole and made a left-to-right breaker for birdie.
Rahm also birdied at the 18th par-5, statistically the easiest hole on the course, and led with one stroke when Oosthuizen pulled out his driver at 17. He took a brave line down the left side.
“A lot of players would intentionally go into the tee bunker,” Jones said. “I think he wanted to have an easier shot and took the chance. If he had been in the lead, he probably would have done the same as Rahm. But that’s what makes Torrey Pines such a great place to play, visually and in terms of demands. The canyons are really part of the route.
Oosthuizen’s ball bounced twice, kicked left and disappeared into a bush. He took a penalty, hit a corner 10 feet away and missed the putt by.
“I shot him from five meters,” the South African said of his training. “Standing on that tee again, I would probably do the same. I’ve been there, and that’s what it takes to earn majors. Sometimes it works your way and other times it doesn’t.
Jones is biased, of course, but he said he doesn’t understand the rumors that the US Golf Association wants to move away from municipal courts for its flagship event and settle into a rotation of classic private venues such as Oakmont, Winged Foot and Pinehurst.
“It was before the event,” Jones said. “It was a home run for everyone.”
The USGA has named hosts for the US Open through 2027, as well as No. 2 Pinehurst in North Carolina in 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047 as part of a deal to add a museum, center research and a satellite office on the property. There are two West Coast stops on the horizon (which television loves because they air prime time on the East Coast): 2023 at Los Angeles Country Club and 2027 at Pebble Beach.
“I think the USGA was very happy and I think it’s a classic golf course now,” said Jones, who correctly predicted that the winning score this year would be 5 or 6 below par. “I think it will come back, yes. The demands are such that it is not overwhelming but the cream rises to the top. Now Rahm is the No. 1 player in the world [after his win], and of course Tiger [Woods] was # 1 in 2008.
“They’ve crowned the right champion both times, and that’s kind of what they want.”
You won’t get a lot of arguments from gamers, who have raved about the setup. “Fair” was a popular word to describe it.
The average score was 73.451, compared to 73.341 in January on the southern course for the Farmers’ Insurance Open and 74.725 in 2008.
Only champion Bryson DeChambeau was below par at the 2020 US Open in September at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, NY. Only Woods and Rocco Mediate were in 2008.
Twelve were this year.
Phil Mickelson, who has been outspoken in his criticisms of US Open setups in the past, praised Torrey Pines despite finishing tied for 62nd at 11 above par.
“In the 30 years that I’ve played at the US Open it’s the best I’ve seen,” said Mickelson. “I think they did an amazing job, and I’m really proud and happy that it’s here at Torrey. … You have guys who are long hitters, guys who are short hitters, a lot of different strategies, and it comes down to execution. it did not limit [anybody]. Everyone has a chance if they play well.
At one point in the final round, there was a tie at four for the first at 4 under and a tie at six for the second at 3 under. This included seven players in the top 20 of the world golf rankings.
“I love this golf course, it’s fun to play,” said two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka, who tied for fourth. “I think it’s perfect for a major championship. The way he sets up you have to be able to put the ball in the fairway, control your irons and you have to putt really well here. It’s a bit like the basis of a major championship. You have to be able to do everything very well. I think this course is perfect for that.
England’s Paul Casey, who tied for seventh, said: “As a golf course setup it was great, and I haven’t always been able to say that in the past. Torrey Pines was a superstar. You can always configure it wrong if you’re not careful, and they didn’t. It was a great championship. So, kudos to the USGA. ◆