By Neil Leverett
- The 121st US Open Championship begins on Thursday at Torrey Pines in San Diego, California
- Buoyed by PGA win last month, Phil Mickelson can complete career Grand Slam in Golden State
- Second time South Course has hosted major tournament; Tiger Woods won 2008 tournament
SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA – As the third major of the season begins in California this week, could Phil Mickelson complete the career Grand Slam at Torrey Pines?
Two majors down. Two to play.
As golf assembles for number three of 2021 this week in California, Torrey Pines in the shadow San Diego, hosts the 121st US Open.
Having last hosted a major tournament 13 years ago, Tiger Woods won here in 2008 – his last major victory before a remarkable Masters win in 2019.
Located between the Carmel and Sorrento valleys, Torrey Pines’ 64-year-old environs continue a growing trend of US majors with a distinct links feel.
And after the carnage of Winged Foot last September, will California’s exposed Pacific winds once more leave the pack floundering?
Mickelson riding Kiawah wave
One man who by any stretch of the imagination is not sinking however, is Phil Mickelson.
A month on from winning his second PGA Championship on the opposite side of the US in South Carolina, the 50-year-old became the oldest male player to win a major, taking his second Wanamaker Trophy and sixth major title at Kiawah Island.
Maintaining his lead from the end of the second round, Mickelson held firm in the Palmetto State as his challengers fell by the wayside, with returning fans mobbing the veteran on the final fairway.
Following on from Mickelson’s sensational win, this week, the San Diego native returns home to compete for the one major title that still eludes him.
Lefty seeking fairytale win
Indeed, with his latest opportunity to complete the career Grand Slam this coming weekend, Lefty would not have expected to be arriving in his back yard, now with genuine optimism he could become only the sixth man to do so.
To complete that feat, Mickelson will have to win successive majors, which only 13 players have done in the Open era – now almost 100 years ago.
Even though the major calendar has now switched to a month-by-month format, carrying winning form from one major to another remains as steep a task as there is.
Legends of the game Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods help make up said elite band of 12 players.
Did we say 12? We meant 13, because there is another man to have claimed back-to-back crowns. One Phil Mickelson.
Adding to the stakes on the line at Torrey Pines, if Mickelson can replicate his PGA and Masters wins from between 2005 and 2006, he will be only the fifth player in history to do it twice.
And for him to do it in his own back yard, for Mickelson, that will be just that extra special.
With three Green Jackets, two PGA crowns and a Claret Jug to his name, the US Open remains the one that got away.
Having finished runner-up on six occasions, his final hole meltdown at Winged Foot during 2006 perhaps still haunts him to this day, after double-bogeying the 72nd hole, allowing Geoff Ogilvy to take the title.
Turning 51 on the eve of the tournament on Wednesday, Mickelson, having now embarked on the Champions PGA Tour is playing the best he has done in some five years. Could that yet lift him to the crowing moment of his 29-year career this weekend?
Is Cantlay poised?
Such is the growing calibre in the field, in three of the last five majors, a new name has been written on the respective trophy.
After Hideki Matsuyama became the latest in that category at the Masters back in April, could now be Patrick Cantlay‘s moment to seize his chance?
On the back of victory at Memorial earlier this month, the 29-year-old – one of many other Californians in the field – now tops the FedEx Cup points rankings. But is the four-time PGA Tour winner ready?
It should be remembered, that similar accusations were leveled at Gary Woodland before his win at Pebble Beach two years ago, as a player who was simply not considered capable of holding it together over 72 holes of major championship competition.
As the man from Kansas then proved his critics wrong by retaining a 54-hole lead, Woodland won out by three strokes in Florida, over defending champion and three-peat-chasing Brooks Koepka.
Cantlay may have a small psychological foot-up this weekend if we look to history.
No less than 13 men since 1990 have gone on to win a major after winning at Muirfield Village, of which Cantlay is the latest.
He is now whispered in the same elite band of players the likes of Jon Rahm, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finau and Jason Kokrak, who are poised to make their mark in major golf, but who have all seen the chance of glory appear and as quickly fade.
With a best major result of T3 at the 2019 PGA at Bethpage, Cantlay again threatened the upper echelons of the leaderboard at Kiawah last month, but his opening round with two eagles, was rather undermined by five bogeys, shooting 73. Cantlay recorded two more 73s across the week, to finish T23.
Yet to finish in the top 20 at the US Open, could 2021 however, be his year to strike?
The form book
Garrick Higgo‘s stunning Palmetto Championship win at Congaree is still the talk of the golfing fraternity, coming from nowhere to win by a single stroke in Ridgeland this past weekend, earning him exemption into his first US Open.
A three-time winner on the European Tour, Higgo, 23, will play his second major tournament after finishing T64 at at Kiawah last month. Could he feature in the Golden State though? It is perhaps unlikely.
Aside from Cantlay meanwhile, Jason Kokrak’s second Tour win of the season at the Charles Schwab Invitational has seen the Ontario-born American’s credentials rise once more, and could be one to watch in San Diego.
Glancing back at the form book at Torrey Pines meanwhile, Patrick Reed won on the South Course back in January, taking the Farmers Insurance crown by a resounding five strokes.
A Masters champion three years go, Reed’s best finish at the US Open is eighth, but with recent history on his side, could the Texan add his second major in California?
Rahm is another who has won at Torrey Pines, and though the Spaniard will be allowed to compete after a positive COVID-19 test last week, just what shape of fitness Rahm is in, remains in doubt.
Intriguingly, Jason Day has won the Farmers twice in a playoff, in 2015 and 2018, but the Australian’s battle with his on-going imbalance and vertigo issues, may rule his position at the top of the standings out. Compatriot Marc Leishman was prominent at Augusta back in the spring and could be a better bet, however.
As for Brooks Koepka, a US Open winner in successive years between 2017 and 2018, Koepka showed glimpses of his very best as he pursued Mickelson for the Wanamaker Trophy, but as the Floridian continued his comeback from injury, was not with his full powers to maintain a challenge, made to settle for another runners-up slot.
Now back on the Tour and with another month of play under his belt however, Koepka could be a real force.
In terms of the British challenge, Lee Westwood‘s run of form looks to have petered out, so Paul Casey again is perhaps the best shot of the Brit pack to mount a challenge.
Recording another major top-four finish at Kiawah, Casey has continued to show consistency on the Tour.
Justin Rose of course, has history with the US Open after his emotional 2013 win at Merion and his two major showings so far in 2021 have been impressive.
Having led the Masters through the opening two rounds, Rose then rallied well to finish T8 at Kiawah also, after shooting 72-75-73 up until Saturday.
Rose has always spoken of his liking for a links course, so could that favour him this week?
Matt Fitzpatrick is another name who is threatening to have a breakthrough major, and though is struggling to maintain a weekend major charge, cannot be ruled out either.
It will be interesting to see if the resurgence of Irish duo Padraig Harrington and Shane Lowry continues after a T4 at last month’s PGA also.
In the case of Harrington, the Ryder Cup captain may be keeping a closer eye on his picks for later in the year more than in adding a fourth major, but after a T4 similarly nine years ago in the US Open, Harrington could yet figure toward the top of the end of the leaderboard once more.
For Lowry meanwhile, as he finally prepares to defend his 2019 Open title next month at Royal St. George’s, the Offaly man will be quietly content with his form in the lead up to the trip to Kent, and can be expected to feature this weekend.
Whoever does go on to become the 121st winner of the tournament, as a further throng of fans returns to the greens and fairways this week in California, the latest instalment of the US Open is unlikely to disappoint.
The 121st US Open begins at Torrey Pines, San Diego, on Thursday.
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