U.S. Open 2021: Fantasy picks, power rankings and analysis

Jon Rahm has a great history at Torrey Pines. Will that lead to his first major championship win this week in the U.S. Open? Credit: USA Today Images

San Diego is a special place. Sometimes it feels as if I spent half my former life hanging around those streets. It was an easy spot to spend any week off when the Tour headed west because I had family there and good yardage to the right spots. Fish tacos, Ocean Beach, Bill Walton, 72 degrees again and again, it’s a treasured land of unique gifts. The part of me that still loves the road wishes I was shacked up in La Jolla this week or at least relaxing in the evening on a back porch in Del Mar.

And down that highway, where ocean breezes blow.

To this day, though, my opinion of Torrey Pines is less clear. It’s one of the nation’s most famous munis, a beast of a par 71, 7,652-yard course that’s as difficult as it is beautiful. A full grown layout if ever there was, relentless in stretches, demanding power and precision, nerve, touch, guts, guile and all the other intangibles we ask our major championship tests to reveal.

RELATED: U.S. Open course preview of Torrey Pines | The Caddie Line homepage

The par-3 third is a delight. Gliders hanging overhead, the Pacific below, a green surrounded by sand and canyon. The golf course is fierce yet fair but I’d never describe it as great. There are many good holes. Let’s leave it at that, enjoy the aerial views and get on with what will be required to win the National Open this week and claim the $2.25 million first prize.

Power off the tee for starters. There are two ways to dissect Torrey Pines. Hit the fairways with reasonable distance off the tee or bomb away and loft shorter clubs from the rough. Only the elite can follow the second path to success. Many of the greens have a similar shape and holes tucked toward the back on either side demand accurate approaches to create realistic birdie opportunities. Otherwise, it’s a long day trying to 2-putt from long range. The par 5s aren’t pushovers, although No. 6 and No. 18 can offer excitement.

The rough will be longer than it was in January for the Farmers Insurance Open. The greens will be firmer and faster and drier in general. It’s the U.S. Open. Pars must be secured and double bogeys avoided – unless you’re Tiger Woods, who overcame four of them (three on the first hole!) and a bum leg to win the championship here 13 years ago.

The USGA aims to identify the most complete player over 72 holes. Some years they accomplish their goal. This course should help in that regard. We identified players whose driver helps create scoring chances, are sharp on approach, scramble well on firm surfaces and can putt on those confounding poa annua greens, which require a certain stroke and mindset. We emphasized performance on long courses with long rough. The ability to play out of deep grass separates the stars from the others on the PGA Tour.

The Bargain Bin

  • Lanto Griffin, Wilco Nienaber, Ryan Palmer, Taylor Pendrith, Charl Schwartzel

Because it’s a major and there are pools and such circulating the office spaces, clubhouses and grill rooms of America, we’ve added a bonus group. Each was close to cracking the top 25 and by the end of the week seeing any of their names on the first page of the leaderboard wouldn’t be much of a surprise. There’s another Rocco lurking, for certain.

Five names I don’t hate: Sam Burns, Stewart Cink, Corey Conners, Jason Kokrak, Matt Wallace

As always, good luck.

Golfer power rankings

25. Tommy Fleetwood – Before you start screaming and throwing sharp objects at your screen, bear with me. He’s third in the field in SG: Total in the last 36 rounds on courses measuring at least 7,400 yards with long rough. He’s top 20 in poa putting and scrambling. He’s finished in the top five twice in the U.S. Open.

24. Matt Fitzpatrick – We’ll ride with the young Englishman once again after he recorded his fifth top 10 of the season at Congaree and said he’s pleased with the shape of his game. Has two top 15s in six U.S. Opens with one missed cut. Also top 15 in the field in good drives gained, scrambling and par-4 scoring. Needs to avoid the big numbers and offset his lack of power with accuracy. Billy Foster will help him get around.

23. Webb Simpson – He’s made the cut in 16 consecutive majors and won a U.S. Open up the coast at Olympic Club. Best scrambler in the field and he’s a fighter who understands the value of a par. Endured a rough season, missing his hometown Wells Fargo with a neck injury and spending five days fighting the flu recently. Last played the Farmers in 2011.

22. Collin Morikawa – Recent form says he should be higher – five consecutive top 20s including a playoff loss at Memorial two weeks ago. He’s the best iron player in the game (sorry, JT) and won a major in California 10 months ago. But there are some warts on his resume, such as 96th in the field in SG: Total on courses over 7,400 yards with long rough, 101st in poa putting and 111th in scrambling. Anyone else with such glaring weaknesses would be omitted from the Power Rankings, but he’s special.

21. Charley Hoffman – It’s a home game for the resurgent 44-year-old and he’ll be a popular play this week because of his familiarity with Torrey Pines and ballstriking prowess. His record in the Farmers is rather pedestrian (12 of 22 cuts, 3 top 10s), but he’s 10th in the field in Good Drives Gained and third in SG: Approach over the last 36 rounds. The marine layer won’t phase him.

20. Louis Oosthuizen – If you’ve been playing along here for a minute or two you understand that the sweet swinging South African is an automatic play in the majors. He cashed in our confidence at last year’s U.S. Open (third) and this year’s PGA (T-2). He’s the best putter in the field on poa annua greens (last 36 rounds) and has bettered the field average tee-to-green in six consecutive tournaments. The man has horses to buy.

19. Justin Thomas – In 11 starts in the U.S. in 2021, Thomas has a Players victory and one other top 10. A great season for some, disappointing by his standards. The putter has been the problem (112th in the field). Maybe he’ll see a couple bounce in early in the week and gain confidence. I doubt he can drive it well enough for four days to win but his irons remain lethal and his bad golf is better than most.

18. Patrick Cantlay – He ranks high in the models this week but I’m having a hard time overlooking his dismal performance at Torrey Pines in the past – three starts, T-51 and two MCs, skipped it the last two years. Still, he’s a Californian on his native grass who is strong from tee-to-green, gaining 7.9 strokes on approach at the PGA and 6.1 en route to victory at Muirfield.

17. Abraham Ancer – The only negative is his lack of power off the tee (79th) and he’ll need to find the fairway at a high rate. That’s generally not a problem (third in field in Good Drives Gained). Leads the field in par-4 scoring over the last 36 rounds and avoids bogeys and double bogeys on long courses. Disrespectful price in fantasy formats for a man who has finished 26th, 13th and eighth in the last three majors.

16. Bryson DeChambeau – Not feeling the repeat. Missed the cut in both Torrey Pines appearances and hasn’t played the course in competition since his power surge. He’s seventh in putting on poa annua and ninth in scrambling to firm greens.

15. Paul Casey – He checks most of the boxes this week. Elite driver and iron player, experienced major competitor, who came close up the coast in the PGA at Harding Park last year and finished fourth at Kiawah despite losing 1.3 strokes on the greens. Just four appearances at Torrey Pines, missing the cut twice.

14. Joaquin Niemann – Drives the ball like a machine, gaining strokes off the tee in 16 of his last 17 outings. Finished 23rd, 40th and 30th in his last three major efforts (missed 2020 Masters due to COVID-19). Fell shy of the weekend for the first time in 10 months last time out at Memorial. Made the cut in both Farmers starts.

13. Jordan Spieth – Doesn’t feel like a great fit for Spieth. He missed the cut at the Farmers in January before going on a tear, populating leaderboards across the nation like it was 2016, racking up six top-4 finishes, highlighted by a win in San Antonio and a T-3 at Augusta. Dealing with a taped sprained ankle so monitor his status but he understands how to maneuver his way through a major test. Second in par-4 scoring, 10th in poa putting.

12. Dustin Johnson – World No. 1 made progress in a T-10 at Congaree, striking the ball well (7.3 strokes Tee-to-Green) as he attempts to rebound from missing the cut in the last two majors. He’s fallen from favor with the models because of his recent lackluster efforts and hasn’t played Torrey Pines since missing the cut in 2017, opting instead for the guaranteed cash available in the Middle East that time of year. Still, only Koepka has been better in majors the last five years.

11. Will Zalatoris – In the last nine months he’s finished sixth in the U.S. Open, second in the Masters and eighth in the PGA, which makes him a taller, thinner, longer hitting version of Oosthuizen. His scrambling is poor (109th) but he rarely misses a green (fifth in SG: Approach) and putts better than the field average on poa annua. Solid value here.

10. Tony Finau – Like most weeks, there are ample reasons to back Finau and his major championship record – four top 10s in the last five, including a T-8 at Winged Foot last September – only bolsters the case for adding him to your roster. Other than 5-10 foot putting, a crucial distance in any Open, he’s far better than the field average in all the ballstriking and scrambling stats targeted this week.

9. Rory McIlroy – Early in the week he was floating around the books at 20/1 which is enticing for a four-time major champion who finished top 5 at Torrey Pines in 2019 and 2020. Can he survive the opening round? He’s second in the field in avoiding bogeys and eighth in opportunities gained, bombs it obviously and ranks 15th in SG: Approach on firm greens. Also 102nd in scrambling and worse than field average on 5-10 foot putts.

8. Tyrrell Hatton – He’s top 10 in the field in SG: Approach, Opportunities Gained and scoring on par 4s and arrives in California riding high from a T-2 at Congaree last weekend. Different coast and grass but golf is golf and confidence is the most important tool in any pro’s kit. He’ll be a factor over four grueling days where consistent ballstriking will be rewarded.

7. Viktor Hovland – The Norwegian Forest Cat has finished in the top 15 in the last two U.S. Opens, hardly surprising for a young striker who is top 5 in proximity from 175-200 yards and 200 yards or more, which will enable him to attack the corner hole locations at Torrey Pines. Tied for second in the Farmers earlier this year.

6. Hideki Matsuyama – In theory, it’s less difficult to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year now that there’s a major championship held during the month in between. We love Hideki but he made us sad at Memorial, losing 9.4 strokes on the greens and possibly breaking his own unofficial record for one-handed finishes. Still, this layout is an excellent fit for his skill set. He’s 16th in the field in good drives gained, eighth in scrambling and poa annua is easily his best surface. In the last six years he’s finished worse than 21st in the U.S. Open only once.

5. Patrick Reed – Won the Farmers in convincing manner earlier this season and his world-class short game, excellent putting on poa annua (ninth in field) and mental toughness give him a great opportunity to earn a second major crown. The driver is a slight question mark. He’s 68th in the field in driving distance and 71st in Good Drives Gained. Has three top 15s in the last four U.S. Opens.

4. Jon Rahm – He earned his position as overwhelming favorite in Vegas with 54 splendid holes at Muirfield Village and we all know what happened next. Cleared to return to golf over the weekend, Rahm has a win, T-2, T-5 and T-7 in five outings at the Farmers. There’s no doubting the physical prowess – 13th in approach, ninth in poa putting, 18th in driving distance. Best in the field on courses with long rough. Has missed the cut in two of five U.S. Opens, however.

3. Shane Lowry – Loves a stern test. In his last 36 rounds in tough scoring conditions, he’s the only player in the field to rank top 40 in driving distance, greens in regulation gained and scrambling. Also top 15 in SG: Total on poa greens when fairways are difficult to find. The 2019 Open champion has gained at least 1.3 strokes on approach in his last six tournaments and has four top 10s since March.

2. Brooks Koepka – The two-time champion is 82 under in the majors since 2016, which is 59 strokes better than anyone else. That he missed the cut last weekend doesn’t bother me at all. The extra rest was better than slogging around in the South Carolina humidity for two more days. He gained 2.7 strokes on approach and 1.9 tee-to-green at Congaree.

1. Xander Schauffele – No matter how you slice the field this week, Schauffele emerges near the top. He excels out of long rough, on poa annua greens, on courses longer than 7,400 yards and he finally produced a strong result in his hometown earlier this year, finishing runner-up in the Farmers. He’s finished top 15 in seven of 10 starts in 2021 and never worse than sixth in four stabs at the National Open. Major player needs to land one.

COMMENTS

  1. Brian, thank you for the manner in which you quantify your rankings. I am presently sitting in my condo in Sanibel Island, Florida, gazing at the Gulf of Mexico. I plan on developing 4 entries for the Draftlings Milly Maker. Your content will help me organize my thoughts. I usually do not use one player more than twice in building my rosters. I want to avoid one player ruining all my entries. Again, thank you!

  2. Hi
    Thanks for the breakdown of the golfers for the US. I’m presently sitting on a train gazing at the green fields and sleeping cows. I’m travelling from Brighton to London (UK) Let’s hope we have an English winner this time – I fancy Fleetwood to let rip 🏌️‍♂️🏌️‍♂️ Hip Hip Hooray 🏌️‍♂️🏌️‍♂️

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