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Torrey Pines Gets Rave Reviews From Players And ‘Open Doctor’

Mark Ziegler
The San Diego Union-Tribune

Rees Jones, the man who redesigned Torrey South, thinks it should be awarded another U.S. Open

Torrey Pines South
The 17th fairway at Torrey Pines South, shown looking back from the green, now hugs the canyon after the 2018 redesign by Rees Jones.(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South was decided Sunday afternoon, on the par-4, 434-yard 17th hole.

Jon Rahm birdied it and won. Louis Oosthuizen bogeyed it a half-hour later and lost by a stroke.

But, really, it was decided years earlier, when high winds and the dreaded Japanese beetle and old age took their toll on the course’s namesake trees perched on the edge of the canyon bordering the left side of the fairway. They were still standing when golf course designer Rees Jones embarked on his 2001 facelift of Torrey South for the 2008 U.S. Open; they were gone when he tweaked it again in 2018 ahead of the U.S. Open’s return.

The plan in 2001 was to use the canyons as natural hazards on as many holes as possible, building new tees, shifting fairways, relocating greens on the third, fourth and 14th holes. The trees prevented that at 17. The Torrey pine, which grows only here and on the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, is listed as a critically endangered species. You’re not firing up Uncle Bubba’s chain saw.

“But they were lost naturally over the years,” Jones said, “so it enabled us to move the fairway closer to the canyon at 17 than we could 20 years ago.”

Jones — a k a the “Open doctor” — was speaking Monday afternoon, still beaming after a scintillating final round with a leaderboard jammed with golf’s biggest names, an artist marveling at his creation, a father proud of his offspring. He winced when Oosthiuzen’s drive on 17 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 by the same token, I was glad that the redesign of the 17th hole was really the determining factor of the championship. That change we made, it made a big difference.”

Jones shifted the fairway toward the canyon rim, with little rough or foliage to stop a golf ball from bounding into the barranca. He narrowed it where most drives 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 bringing the hazard more into play.

What does risk-reward look like in statistics? The 17th yielded the most birdies (52) of any par 4 on the back nine but was No. 1 on the course in penalty strokes off the tee.

The idea is to make you think. Play it safe to the right, you’re in sand or rough but have a relatively good shot at par. Aim left, you have a better shot at birdie but you flirt with the rattlesnakes.

Rahm came to 17 trailing Oosthuizen, who was playing three groups behind him, by one. He aimed his tee shot safely right and landed in the fairway bunker, got it on the green 25 feet left of the hole and made a left-to-right breaker for birdie.

Rahm also birdied the par-5 18th, statistically the easiest hole on the course, and led by a stroke when Oosthuizen pulled out his driver on 17. He took a brave line down the left side.

“A lot of players would intentionally go for the bunker off the tee,” Jones said. “I think he wanted to have an easier shot in and took that chance. If he’d been ahead, he probably would have done the same thing that Rahm did. But that’s what makes Torrey Pines such a great place to play, visually and in terms of demands. The canyons are very much a part of the round.”

Oosthuizen’s ball bounced twice, kicked left and disappeared into a bush. He took a penalty drop, hit a wedge to 10 feet and missed the par putt.

“Pulled it by 5 yards,” the South African said of his drive. “Standing on that tee again, I’d probably do the same thing. I went for it, and that’s what you have to do to win majors. Sometimes it goes your way, and other times it doesn’t.”

Jones is biased, of course, but he doesn’t understand the whispers that the U.S. Golf Association wants to move away from municipal courses for its flagship event and settle into a rotation of classic, private venues like Oakmont, Winged Foot and Pinehurst.

“That was before the event,” Jones said. “This was a home run for everybody.”

The USGA has named U.S. Open hosts through 2027, plus Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina in 2029, 2035, 2041 and 2047 as part of a deal to add a museum, research facility and satellite office on the property. There are two West Coast stops on the horizon (which TV likes because they air in prime time on the East Coast): 2023 at Los Angeles Country Club and 2027 at Pebble Beach.

“I think the USGA was over-the-top happy and I think it’s now a classic golf course,” said Jones, who correctly predicted the winning score this year would be 5 or 6 under par. “I think it will come back, yes. The demands are such that it’s not overwhelming but the cream rises to the top. Now Rahm is the No. 1-ranked player in the world (after his win), and obviously Tiger was No. 1 in 2008.

“They crowned the proper champion both times, and that’s sort of what they want.”

You won’t get much argument from the players, who raved about the setup. “Fair” was a popular word when describing it.

That’s code for they didn’t get embarrassed on national TV, or at least not like they have in the past. The average score was 73.451, compared to 73.341 in January on the South Course for the Farmers Insurance Open and 74.725 in 2008.

Only champion Bryson DeChambeau was under par in the 2020 U.S. Open last September at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Only Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate were in 2008.

Twelve were this year.

In 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, there were 338 double bogeys and 59 “others” on scorecards. At Torrey Pines last week: 184 and 18.

The greens got so slick at Shinnecock Hills that Phil Mickelson famously (or infamously) putted his ball while it was still rolling down a slope in protest, like a hockey puck on an ice rink. He has been outspoken in his criticism of U.S. Open setups in the past. Sunday, he was all platitudes despite finishing tied for 62nd at 11 over.

“In the 30 years that I’ve played the U.S. Open, this is the best I’ve seen,” Mickelson said. “I thought they did a remarkable 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 hasn’t limited (anybody). Everybody’s had a chance if they play well.”

Russell Henley had a share of the lead after 18, 36 and 54 holes. He ranked 45th in driving distance for the tournament. Richard Bland, a 48-year-old English journeyman, was a co-leader after two rounds. Mackenzie Hughes, who missed cuts in his five previous PGA Tour events, played in the final group Sunday.

At one point Sunday afternoon, there was a four-way tie for first at 4 under and a six-way tie for second at 3 under. That 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 U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who finished tied for fourth. “I think it’s perfect for a major championship. The way it sets up, you’ve got to be able to put the ball in the fairway, control your irons and you’ve really got to putt well out here. That’s kind of the basis of a major championship. You need to be able to do everything really well. I think this course is perfect for that.”

England’s Paul Casey, who tied for seventh: “As a golf course setup, it was brilliant, and I haven’t always been able to say that in the past. Torrey Pines was a superstar. You can still set it up badly if you’re not careful, and they didn’t. It was a great championship. So, well done to the USGA.”

To Jones, the architect, Torrey Pines’ magic comes from its closing holes. It can be a slog for the first 16, especially what he calls its “Amen Corner” of 11, 12 and 13 where much of the leaderboard imploded Sunday. But there are rewards waiting at the end.

Rahm became the first U.S. Open champion to birdie 17 and 18 since Tom Watson in his epic 1982 battle with Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach.

“That’s where the nerves tighten and the hands tighten and the mind gets a little more stressed,” Jones said. “It’s really the last holes that determine the championship. And both those last two holes, as Rahm proved, are birdie-able. They’re good finishing holes to have a swing.

“If they’re too tough, they’re just going to make par or bogey and nothing’s going to happen.”