Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm among compelling US Open storylines

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A lot has changed since the U.S. Open was last played at Torrey Pines, in 2008.

That year’s champion, Tiger Woods, is sidelined — possibly forever — as he rehabs his shattered right leg, the a result of his frightening one-car crash in February.

The runner-up, Rocco Mediate, is 58 years old and playing on the Champions Tour.

In that Open 13 years ago, Woods, playing with a knee ligament damage and a leg stress fracture, outlasted Mediate in a Monday playoff that went 19 holes to win his 14th career major championship at the time. Neither Woods nor Mediate is in the field this week.

You know who is, though?

Phil Mickelson, fresh off his PGA Championship victory last month at Kiawah Island, who will turn 51 years old on Wednesday. This will be his 30th U.S. Open start in a career that includes 10 top-10 finishes and a record six runner-ups. Mickelson, with a U.S. Open win, would become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam.

Jon Rahm is on the field, too, though he had to suddenly withdraw from the Memorial last weekend, after completing his third round with a six-shot lead, when he tested positive for COVID-19. Rahm, per PGA Tour protocol, has been required to self-isolate since and isn’t eligible to return to the golf course until this week, right before the first round at Torrey Pines.

The withdrawal potentially cost Rahm the $1.7 million winner’s purse at the Memorial (had he gone on to win Sunday), and it, too, cost him the chance to defend his title.

Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Jon Rahm
Getty Images (2), AP

Despite his unfortunate incident at Memorial, Rahm has to be considered one of the favorites to win this week, based on his history at Torrey Pines.

He captured his first PGA Tour victory at Torrey Pines when won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017. He also finished tied for fifth at the San Diego course in 2019, was runner-up in 2020 and tied for seventh in 2021.

He, too, proposed to his now-wife, Kelley Cahill, in 2018 at Torrey Pines.

Another compelling story this week will be Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 ranked player who’s mired in a seven-tournament stretch in which he’s failed to post a single top-10 finish. That run includes missed cuts at the PGA Championship and the Masters, and a tie for 48th at the Players Championship.

What about defending U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau?

DeChambeau has, in his past six starts, seemingly lost his superpowers. He has just one top-10 finish in that span, a tie for ninth at the Wells Fargo Championship last month.

As much attention as DeChambeau’s mercurial game has attracted, of late that attention has shifted to the odd back-and-forth between him and Brooks Koepka, who was seen on a leaked interview with Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis trashing DeChambeau at the PGA.

Since that interview, which never aired on the Golf Channel, but nearly blew up the internet with so many views, the two have tweaked each other. DeChambeau reportedly was agitated by fans at the Memorial calling him “Brooksie’’ and alerted security to have them tossed out. Koepka, who wasn’t playing the Memorial, turned to social media to offer free beer to any fans who were ejected from the tournament for heckling DeChambeau.

On the golf course, the question is whether DeChambeau can become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to repeat as U.S. Open champion and whether Koepka has recovered enough from his March knee surgery to compete. Koepka, even on the bad knee and putting like an 18 handicapper at the PGA, almost won at Kiawah Island last month.

It’s too delicious to think the USGA would have the gumption to pair the two for the first two rounds.

Then there’s Rory McIlroy. The world No. 8 — who hasn’t won a major championship since 2014, teased us with his win at the Wells Fargo last month then flatlined to a tie for 49th at the PGA and a quiet tie for 18th at the Memorial — is a confounding case. Where is he? Close? Was Wells Fargo merely a mirage?

Jordan Spieth, whose last major championship win was the 2017 British Open, has been in better form than he has been in a few years this season with a win at the Valero Open, a runner-up at the Charles Schwab Challenge, six top-five finishes and eight top-10s.

Spieth said the current state of his game is “certainly way better off in a lot of ways than say the last couple years and then not quite in the level of freedom as when I was just really on.”

Fans universally root for Spieth to have success, as they do for Mickelson. So whenever Spieth shows signs, like the win at Valero, it causes a stir among his supporters.

“I hate the word ‘back,’ I hate that, ‘He’s back,’ ’’ Spieth said. “I never went anywhere. This is all part of what happens in a career. There’s ups and downs.’’

Finding out who will have the kind of colossal “up’’ that Woods had 13 years at Torrey Pines is the reason we’ll all be watching with such interest this week.

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