SAN DIEGO — As Patrick Reed was finishing up his practice round on Tuesday in preparation for this week’s U.S. Open, he threw two balls into the rough on the ninth hole of the South Course at Torrey Pines.
One ball hopped into the rough, the other in the kikuyu, an aggressive and rapidly growing grass.
“It’s nasty,” Reed said. “[The ball] in the kikuyu sat up because it’s so thick, actually sat high, where I felt like I could almost hit driver off of it. The other one was maybe 3 feet from it and sank to the bottom. … I advanced it maybe 6 inches in front of me.”
Players’ ability to keep their tee shots in the fairways might be what separates the legitimate contenders from everybody else.
Tier I: The guys who can win
Here are the legitimate contenders to win the U.S. Open. They have the games, guts and nerves to handle four pressure-packed rounds filled with Pacific winds and juicy, thick rough.
The Spaniard was forced to withdraw after the third round of the Memorial, an event he led by 6 strokes after 36 holes. He tested positive for COVID-19 but since has received two negative tests and will be allowed to get a full week’s worth of practice at Torrey Pines; he was originally scheduled to remain in quarantine until Tuesday. He is a combined 51-under par in five starts in the Farmers Insurance Open — the regular PGA Tour event held at Torrey Pines — including a win in 2017.
The 27-year-old was born in La Jolla, played much of his high school golf at Torrey Pines and went to college at San Diego State. After missing the cut in four of his first five starts at the South Course, he tied for runner-up at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. This has to be the major he finally wins, right?
The four-time major champion — two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships — tied for runner-up behind Phil Mickelson last month at the PGA, a sign that he is getting closer to fully recovering from March knee surgery. Koepka is trying to become just the seventh player to win the U.S. Open at least three times.
The reigning U.S. Open champion obviously has the length to contend again at Torrey Pines. Keeping his tee shots in the fairways, as always, will be key for him. Since winning the U.S. Open, DeChambeau tied for 34th at the Masters in November, tied for 46th at the Masters in April and tied for 38th at the PGA Championship.
It has been a so-so season for JT since he won the Players Championship in March. His best finish since then was a tie for 13th at the Valspar. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship. A shaky putter has been the primary culprit.
McIlroy ended an 18-month drought without a PGA Tour victory by taking the Wells Fargo Championship in May. Now, he’ll try to win his first major championship since the 2014 PGA Championship. He’s a combined 32 under in his past three starts on the South Course at the Farmers Insurance Open.
The bottom of Spieth’s nearly four-year slump might have occurred at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where he shot an 81 in the second round and missed the cut by 8 shots. Since then, the 2015 U.S. Open champion won the Valero Texas Open in April and had seven other top-10 finishes.
He won the Farmers Insurance Open by 5 shots in January for his ninth tour victory. It came with controversy when he declared an embedded lie in the rough after his ball bounced to the spot on the 10th hole during the third round. Reed is No. 7 in the Ryder Cup standings; the top six are automatic qualifiers.
DJ is still the No. 1 player in the world, but he hasn’t played like it since winning the Masters in November. He had a good result this past week in South Carolina (tied for 10th), but he missed the cut at Augusta National in April and again at the PGA Championship, becoming the first world No. 1 since Greg Norman in 1997 to not make the cut at two consecutive majors.
At 24, Morikawa has already won four times on tour, including the 2020 PGA Championship. He has accomplished all of that despite a hot-and-cold putter; he ranks 167th in shots gained putting this season (-.316).
With his second win of the season at the Memorial two weeks ago, Cantlay jumped to No. 1 in the FedEx Cup standings, which is pretty remarkable after he missed the cut in four of his previous seven starts. His best finish at the U.S. Open was a tie for 21st in 2011 and 2019.
It’s only a matter of time before the 23-year-old Norwegian snags his first major championship. He performed well in his previous two U.S. Open starts, tying for 13th at Winged Foot and tying for 12th at Pebble Beach — as an amateur!
Simpson has become one of the tour’s best putters. He won the U.S. Open in 2012 at Olympic Club in San Francisco, tied for eighth at Winged Foot, tied for 16th at Pebble Beach in 2019 and tied for 10th at Shinnecock in 2018. He doesn’t have much familiarity with the South Course, however. He has played there only once in the past decade, missing the cut at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open.
Finau is the owner of one of the most maddening stats on tour: He has 39 top-10 finishes — but no wins — since 2017. That’s twice as many as anybody else. He was in the top 10 in six of his past 10 starts in majors, including tied for 10th at the Masters in April and tied for eighth at the PGA.
If it’s a major championship, the South African figures to be a factor. He won the 2010 Open championship and was at least tied for runner-up in the three others, including the 2015 U.S. Open. He was solo third at Winged Foot, 8 shots back of DeChambeau.
The 24-year-old introduced himself to the golf world by finishing tied for sixth at Winged Foot. He hasn’t slowed down since, finishing solo second at the Masters and tied for eighth at the PGA Championship.
The Australian won the 2020 Farmers Insurance Open and has six other top-25s in 13 starts at the South Course, where he averaged 1.68 shots gained per round on the field.
Smith tied for fourth at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay with an eagle on the 72nd hole. He didn’t finish better than a tie for 38th in his four starts since then.
Kokrak, 36, needed 233 career starts to win his first tour event at the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek in October. He needed only 17 starts to win again with a 2-shot victory over Spieth at the Charles Schwab Challenge in May. His putting prowess will come in handy on the typically slick greens at the U.S. Open.
Berger has cooled off considerably with just two top-10s in eight starts since winning at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February.
He followed up his historic Masters victory with three straight finishes outside the top 20, including a tie for 62nd at the Memorial.
The Englishman had been pretty quiet this season — he didn’t have a top-10 finish in a stroke-play event on tour since tying for seventh at the Houston Open in November — until righting the ship and finishing in a tie for second this past week in South Carolina.
Tier II: If everything goes right …
Here are the sleeper candidates to lift the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday. The list includes a former winner, rising stars and other players whose games have been works in progress so far this season. Will it all come together at Torrey Pines?
Maybe the 43-year-old Englishman will be inspired by what Phil Mickelson did at the PGA Championship and win his first major. He has finished in the top five of each of the past two PGAs; his best finish at a U.S. Open was a tie for 10th in 2007.
He will make his second U.S. Open start as a pro; he missed the cut at Pebble Beach in 2019. He has back-to-back top-10s at the PGA Championship and has as much potential as any younger player.
Scott, 40, is making his 80th consecutive start in a major, the longest current streak on tour. His best U.S. Open finish was a tie for fourth in 2015.
The Canadian is one of the tour’s best ball strikers and will be looking to make his first cut at the U.S. Open after failing to do so in 2017 and 2020.
Ancer finished tied for eighth at the PGA Championship, his best finish at a major.
If accuracy off the tee and second shots are a priority, the lefty might just have a shot. He finished tied for second at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, which was the longest course in major championship history at the time.
When the Englishman tied the U.S. Open final-round scoring record with a 63 and finished second at Shinnecock Hills in 2018, he seemed like a can’t-miss star. Three years later, he’s still searching for his first victory on U.S. soil.
The Irishman will undoubtedly enjoy his final month as the reigning Open Championship winner. His best finish at the U.S. Open was a tie for second in 2016.
The 2019 U.S. Open champion showed positive signs with a solo fifth at the Wells Fargo Championship in May.
The 22-year-old will attempt to become only the third Chilean to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Tokyo in July.
Poulter, 45, missed the cut in his previous two U.S. Open starts and never finished better than 12th in 15 starts.
Ortiz and his younger brother, Alvaro, are both playing in the U.S. Open. They’re one of two sets of brothers in the field; Italy’s Francesco and Edoardo Molinari are the others. It’s the first time since 1990 that two sets of brothers are playing in the event.
You know the storyline: He’s 0-for-29 at the U.S. Open, which is the only major he lacks on his Hall of Fame resume. San Diego is his hometown, but he hasn’t particularly liked the South Course since its 2001 redesign by Rees Jones. It will be his seventh attempt at completing the career Grand Slam.
English finished fourth at Winged Foot, even after losing his tee shot and making double bogey on the opening hole of the final round. He recovered to birdie No. 2 with a hole-out from the bunker.
He missed the cut at Winged Foot, and then he made noise by complaining about DeChambeau’s distance gains and calling it a “bit of a mockery of the game.”
The 26-year-old will be making his third start in the U.S. Open; he tied for 32nd at Erin Hills in 2017 and missed the cut at Winged Foot in 2020.
Kisner’s season has been pretty unspectacular so far, but he excels at putting on poa annua greens.
Westwood, 48, has cooled off considerably after his March heater of back-to-back runner-ups at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship. He got married last week in Las Vegas to Helen Storey, who also happens to be his caddie.
The former Florida Gator just announced he’s hosting a tournament at TPC Sawgrass in late July for minority golfers.
Garcia missed the cut in two of his past three U.S. Open starts and tied for 52nd at Pebble Beach.
His form hasn’t been great lately; he missed the cut in three of his previous five starts.
He won twice in 2020 to complete one of the more remarkable comeback stories in tour history. He has two top-10s in 21 starts this season.
The 30-year-old will be attempting to make his first cut in his third U.S. Open start.
The five-time tour winner missed two of three U.S. Open cuts after finishing seventh at Oakmont in 2016.
The two-time Masters champion missed the cut in five of his previous seven U.S. Open starts.
The San Diego native knows Torrey Pines inside and out. He has played 71 competitive rounds there since 1994. He has four top-25s at the Farmers Insurance Open (previously named the Buick Invitational), including solo ninth in 2020.
The 22-year-old from South Africa won his first PGA Tour event, coming from 6 shots behind in the final round to beat six players by 1 shot at last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree. Higgo, who played at UNLV, had won three times in the past nine months on the European Tour, including twice in a three-week span.
Tier III: Hey, miracles happen
They are the long shots. This tier includes a handful of aging former champions and some first-timers.
The Austrian has 12 worldwide victories; his best finish at the U.S. Open was a tie for 16th at Erin Hills.
Since finishing second at Winged Foot and tying for runner-up in the Shriners Hospital for Children Open in his next start, it has been a forgettable season for Wolff. He doesn’t have a top-25 finish since then, withdrew from two events, and was disqualified from the Masters in April for signing an incorrect scorecard. He also pulled out of the PGA Championship for unspecified reasons.
Move over, DeChambeau. Professional golf’s longest hitter is this 21-year-old from South Africa, who averaged a whopping 361.4 yards off the tee in his PGA Tour debut in last week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree. He finished tied for 14th, 4 shots behind Higgo. DeChambeau’s driving distance average is 322.7 yards this season; the tour average is 295.7. In November, Nienaber had a 439-yard drive at the Joburg Open in South Africa, a European Tour record.
Tier IV: Happy to make the cut
They aren’t expected to be among the contenders unless something magical happens.
The 19-year-old who skipped college to turn pro gets his first crack at a major. He finished tied for ninth at the Safeway Open, and the he was the first player since 2008 to hit each of the 18 greens at Pebble Beach, the smallest putting surfaces on tour, to shoot 8-under 64 in the first round of the AT&T Pro Am.
Armitage, 33, delivered an emotional post-victory interview after winning for the first time on the European Tour at the Porsche European Open in Germany. It was a long journey for the Englishman, who lost his mother to cancer when he was 15.
The former East Tennessee State star is the first player from Poland to compete in the U.S. Open. Meronk, 6-foot-6, has one victory on the European Challenge Tour.
Strafaci became the fourth Georgia Tech player to win the U.S. Amateur with a 1-up victory over Ollie Osborne in the 36-hole final at Bandon Dunes in August. He took advantage of the USGA’s new rule that allows the reigning U.S. Amateur champion to play in the ensuing U.S. Open as a pro.
Tier V: The qualifiers
Here are the remaining players among the 66 who aren’t PGA Tour regulars. They survived local and final qualifying to grab spots in the field.
The South African has 11 worldwide victories, including three on the European Tour. He tied for 25th at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Luis Fernando Barco
Barco, who played collegiately at Purdue, is believed to be the first player from Peru to qualify for the U.S. Open.
Johnson’s older brother, Bradley, finished second to Kevin Tway at the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur. About eight months later, Bradley Johnson was killed in a car wreck in Lay Lake, Alabama. He was 17.
The former USC standout finished 37th at the Farmers Insurance Open and donated half of his $34,125 winnings back to the tournament’s charity.
Young, 24, won back-to-back events on the Korn Ferry Tour in May, the first victories of his professional career. He had missed the cut in five of his previous six starts.
Tier VI: The amateurs
Here are the amateur players who will attempt to do what stars such as Cantlay, Mickelson, Rahm and Spieth and so many others did at the U.S. Open before turning pro — winning a medal as low amateur.
A rising junior at Texas, Hammer is competing in his third U.S. Open; he missed the cut at Chambers Bay and Winged Foot.
What a month for Highsmith, who led Pepperdine to its second NCAA championship, going 3-0 in match play, and then earning medalist honors in a final qualifier in Richland, Washington.
The Englishman won the Amateur Championship at Royal Birkdale in August to earn his first U.S. Open start.
The fifth-year senior from Georgia shot 3-under 139 in his PGA Tour debut as an amateur at the 2020 RBC Heritage.
A three-time All-American at Pepperdine, he won the 2020 Jack Nicklaus Award, Ben Hogan Award and Haskins Award as the country’s best college player. In his first tour start, he tied for 14th at the Safeway Open in September.