LOS ANGELES — The past week in men’s professional golf seemed like a Hollywood script, with the PGA Tour pledging loyalty to its sworn enemy, the LIV Golf League, which is being funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) and fronted by its favorite villain, two-time Open winner Greg Norman.
So, as the world’s best golfers gather for the third major championship of the season, perhaps it’s fitting that the 123rd U.S. Open is being played not far from Hollywood, at Los Angeles Country Club.
Players from both the PGA Tour and LIV Golf League are still trying to figure out exactly what’s going on. There’s still much confusion, on both sides, about the future of the game. Will the LIV Golf League fold? Will it survive? Will LIV golfers just come back to the PGA Tour if it doesn’t?
“I think I just don’t know what’s going on,” said English golfer and defending U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. “I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on. Are we signing with the PIF? Are we not signing with the PIF? I have no idea. Even though I guess it is confusing, it’s pretty clear that nobody knows what’s going on apart from about four people in the world.”
Australia’s Cameron Smith, captain of Ripper GC in the LIV Golf League, said there’s as much confusion on his circuit. Smith said he thought the proposed merger was a joke, until Yasir Al-Rumayyan, PIF’s governor, called him to explain the alliance.
“He didn’t really explain too much,” Smith said. “I think there’s still a lot of stuff to be worked out, and as time goes on, we’ll get to know more and more. But there’s definitely a lot of curious players, I think, on both sides as to what the future is going to look like.”
LIV Golf League star Bryson DeChambeau has already declared victory for his side, saying he felt sorry for PGA Tour players who didn’t take the Saudis’ money. Germany’s Martin Kaymer, the 2014 U.S. Open winner, said PGA Tour players who said they wouldn’t take “blood money” or “sell our souls” needed to move to Japan to play.
The sides are together in L.A. for the third time this season. And, yes, DeChambeau and Kaymer are in the field.
I love L.A.
Los Angeles Country Club is hosting the U.S. Open for the first time and its first PGA Tour event since the 1940 Los Angeles Open. The city itself hasn’t hosted a U.S. Open in 75 years. One of the most exclusive clubs in the country, LACC likes to keep its business behind the gates and, mostly, until now, its course to itself. The club did host the 2017 Walker Cup, in which a U.S. team led by Collin Morikawa, Scottie Scheffler and Will Zalatoris defeated a squad of players from Great Britain and Ireland 19-7.
The club is tucked away on 325 acres close to Beverly Hills. Its North Course underwent an extensive renovation in 2010 by Gil Hanse, who attempted to restore it to the original design of George C. Thomas. There are five par 3s and three par 5s. The 284-yard seventh and 290-yard 11th will be two of the longest par-3 holes in U.S. Open history. The par-3 15th hole could be as short as 78 yards. The sixth hole is a drivable par 4.
“I think that’s amazing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I know there’s par-3s here that are 293 yards. Might be able to play a bit longer. I don’t know the ins and outs. Yeah, I would argue that at 78 yards, [standing] there with a lob wedge in your hand, you’re going to be a little bit more intimidated than [standing] there with a 3-wood in your hand. I would probably say that’s pretty truthful amongst everyone in the field.”
There’s also Bermuda rough off the fairways for the first time in a U.S. Open since Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina in 2005.
“I guess we’re used to that kind of really thick, juicy rough,” Smith said. “It’s a little bit different here. I think the Bermuda rough, I think you can get kind of lucky or unlucky. There’s patches out there where they’re actually quite thin and you can get away with kind of a bad shot and other patches where if you’re in there, it’s no good at all. I think that’s a little bit different.”
There isn’t much of a chance for rain this week, so conditions should be firm and fast. The United States Golf Association will be able to do pretty much whatever it wants in making it difficult.
“I expect it will get really firm and fast, and you might have to be probably a little bit creative from the fairways to get to some pins and just be really accurate with your landing distances and knowing how far the ball is running out,” Smith said.
Fans can see the L.A. skyline in the distance from the par-3 12th. The Playboy Mansion is perched above the 13th green. (Hugh Hefner never had a membership.) The TV coverage window on Saturday is until 11 p.m. ET and 10 p.m. ET on Sunday. There will be a prime-time finish on the East Coast.
“I can’t wait,” Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy said last week. “I think it’s going to be one of the best U.S. Opens there’s been for a while.”
Phil goes for the career Grand Slam
For the ninth time, Phil Mickelson will attempt to become only the sixth man to complete a career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open. He has been runner-up in the event a whopping six times but only once since he won the 2013 Open Championship, his third leg of the Grand Slam, at Muirfield in Scotland.
A year ago, the thought of Mickelson winning another major would seem unfathomable. But after he tied for second at the Masters, maybe it’s not too far-fetched. Mickelson will turn 53 on Friday.
Going into last year’s U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, Fitzpatrick was among the favorites because he had won the 2013 U.S. Amateur on the same course. His knowledge and good memories paid off, as he defeated Zalatoris with a brilliant fairway bunker shot on the 72nd hole to capture his first major.
Fitzpatrick will attempt to become the eighth player to win the U.S. Open in consecutive seasons. According to Elias, only two defending champions since 1990 finished in the top 10 the next year: Brooks Koepka, with a runner-up at California’s Pebble Beach in 2019, and Tiger Woods, with a tie for sixth at Bethpage Black in New York in 2009.
This year, Fitzpatrick tied for seventh in the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii then battled pain in his neck for much of the next couple of months. He indicated the problem was between his shoulder blades. Fitzpatrick said it flared up on Friday at the RBC Canadian Open.
“This year, I would say, is quite a bit different,” Fitzpatrick said. ” I feel like the start of the year I had a good, obviously, first event in Hawaii and then got injured, and that kind of felt like it set me back quite a bit for February and March. Ended up obviously playing well in April. I feel like my game is kind of getting in the right place.”
England’s Fitzpatrick and Spain’s Jon Rahm are the past two U.S. Open champions. Only once since 1910 has there been at least a three-year drought without an American champion in the U.S. Open. There were four straight foreign winners from 2004 to 2007: South Africa’s Retief Goosen, New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy and Argentina’s Angel Cabrera.
The bad news for foreign-born players this week: In 15 U.S. Opens held in California, according to Elias Sports Bureau, Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell (Pebble Beach, 2010) and Rahm (Torrey Pines, 2021) were the only winners. Australia’s Steve Elkington was the only other foreign-born winner of a major championship played in the state, at the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera.
The guys who can win
Scheffler’s putting has been a mess, but he is still ranked No. 1 in the world and has been exceptional in every other facet of his game. In his past 12 rounds at the U.S. Open, he ranks first in strokes gained tee-to-green, ballstriking, off-the-tee and approach. Scheffler has had the lowest scoring average (69.9) in majors among players with at least 30 rounds since the start of 2020.
Rahm claimed his second major championship when he won a green jacket at the Masters in April. He loves playing in California: Of his 11 PGA Tour victories, five of them occurred in the state, including the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego. He has made the cut in 15 straight major championships.
The LIV Golf star picked up his fifth major championship victory at last month’s PGA Championship. In this season’s first two majors, he had at least a share of the lead after five of eight rounds. He likes difficult setups and would love to win a third U.S. Open to go with his three PGA Championship wins.
And how about this nugget from the Elias Sports Bureau: Koepka has finished either first or second in nine of his past 22 majors (41%). The only other players with at least three top-two finishes in majors since June 2017 are Dustin Johnson (four), Louis Oosthuizen (three) and Zalatoris (three).
The reigning Open Championship winner didn’t play great in the first two majors, tying for 34th at the Masters and for ninth at the PGA Championship, after a final-round 65 vaulted him into the top 10. But Los Angeles Country Club’s tricky bunkers and green complexes are going to put a premium on a player’s short game, and the Australian golfer is as good as anyone in that department. He was second in the field in strokes gained putting (1.90) at the PGA Championship.
Smith’s track record in the U.S. Open isn’t stellar. He missed the cut in each of his past two starts, and he is a combined 59 strokes over in his past six.
McIlroy might feel like the weight of the PGA Tour has been lifted off his shoulders after its stunning alliance with the Saudis. McIlroy seemed to be feeling the burden after missing the cut at the Masters. He tied for seventh at the PGA Championship. In case you forgot, he hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship. He’ll need to putt better to contend this week.
See above. Spieth is a wizard around the greens and as creative as anyone in the field with a wedge in his hands. A player will have to make more than a few par saves to be in contention, and Spieth scrambles with the best of them. His best finish at the U.S. Open since his victory in 2015 was a tie for 19th at Torrey Pines.
The California native is still searching for his first major championship. According to Elias, he is the only player in the field with a top-20 finish in each of the past five majors. He also has finished in the top 15 in each of the past six U.S. Opens, including a tie for third at Pebble Beach in 2019 and for seventh at Torrey Pines two years later.
Another SoCal native who is trying to win his first big one, Cantlay finished in the top 15 in each of the past four majors, including a tie for ninth at the PGA Championship. That was his first start in a major with Tiger Woods’ former caddie Joe LaCava on his bag.
Morikawa’s form hasn’t been up to his lofty standards this season. He has just four top-10s in 17 starts, but he did tie for 10th at the Masters. His ballstriking and familiarity with Los Angeles Country Club will come in handy. The L.A. native was on the 2017 Walker Cup team and went 4-0 in matches there.
One factoid you’ll hear a lot this week: Homa set the still-standing LACC North Course record with a 9-under 61 in the first round of the 2013 Pac-12 championship. It was the UC Berkeley senior’s first college win; he would win an NCAA individual championship a few weeks later. Homa has won six times on the PGA Tour but hasn’t performed well in majors.