SAN DIEGO, Calif. — The PGA Tour schedule said this was the Farmers Insurance Open. Sunday’s reality on the South Course at Torrey Pines said it was more like a United States Open.
The only real winner after a weekend of bloodletting was the South Course, a sentence that gets written by some clever scribe practically every year at the National Open. The South Course greens were firm and maybe not quite as fast as an Open layout but the rough was thick and grabby and right out of the Winged Foot or Oakmont playbooks.
Jason Day of Australia is the official champion of this 2015 edition, but really he was simply the last man standing after a four-man playoff with defending Farmers Insurance champ Scott Stallings, Harris English and J.B. Holmes. Day beat Holmes on the second extra hole when Holmes made bogey at the par-3 16th and Day tapped in a par putt.
“It’s an amazing feeling to survive this,” said Day. “I’m really thrilled.”
The challenging conditions made birdies infrequent and bogeys as common as refinanced mortgages. The low score of the day was 67 by Chad Collins. There were only six rounds shot in the 60s, including a 68 by Charles Howell III and a 69 by Stallings.
Here’s just how tough the South Course played: the last six threesomes combined to shoot 32 over par in the final round. Note to Captain Obvious: Um, that’s not good. Even for a U.S. Open, that’s not good.
“This golf course is hard on calm days and the wind picked up coming in today,” said Charles Howell III, who made a serious charge with a 68, thanks to an eagle at the 13th hole. “Starting at 14, it’s got a lot of teeth in it today. I think there’s more rough than the 2008 U.S. Open here. The greens are bouncy, a lot bouncier than we’re used to seeing them.”
That’s why it turned into a war of attrition and why most of the contenders — 30 players began the final round within five strokes of the lead — left feeling they’d beat themselves or that the course beat them. Every contender left with a different what-if version of why what might have been wasn’t.
Jimmy Walker, Ryder Cup stalwart, stumbled with five bogeys.
Jhonattan Vegas, who had a share of the lead early on the final nine, foozled a hybrid shot from the left rough at No. 12 that never escaped the rough and traveled maybe ten yards, submarine like, through the thick stuff. That led to a double bogey. He added another bogey at 14 and another double at 17.
Lucas Glover, your former U.S. Open champion, who had played his way into the final group for the first time in a few years, struggled all day. He doubled the tough par-4 from the rough, doubled the seventh from the rough and added insult to injury with a double at 17 when he missed a 20-inch bogey putt.
Spencer Levin and Chad Campbell, playing in the next-to-last group with Walker, were put out of their misery early. Levin bogeyed four of his first seven and Campbell doubled the opening hole and was shut out completely in the birdie department.
Nick Watney made only one birdie on the round and tied for seventh.
“The rough was brutal, the greens are firm and add a little wind, it’s pretty tough,” said Watney, who admitted he left a few shots on the course with his putter.
Day got into the mix with birdies at 15 and 16, the latter a 40-foot ocean-liner of a putt, but saved par from a plugged bunker lie at the 17th and wound up having to save par at the par-5 18th too, when he flew his second shot over the green and then watched his pitch roll off the front of the green. In many years, his ball would’ve gone into the pond but there was just enough fur at the water’s edge to stop it just in time.
“I got lucky it stayed up,” Day admitted. “It was a difficult, difficult course today. I’m just glad I got in.”
Day got up and down from there, it turned out, to join the playoff.
English survived four bogeys but only because he made four birdies on the back nine, including a clutch up and down from the 18th green’s bunker to get into the playoff.
Holmes was left to rue not making birdie at either par 4 on the back nine despite being one of the longest hitters in the game. He had bogeyed three of the opening six holes but then birdied three of the next four.
At the famous par-5 18th, needing a birdie to win outright, he hit a drive in the fairway and had 235 yards to the middle of the green but unlike Day, he opted to lay up with an 8-iron. He pulled his wedge shot left and narrowly missed an 18-foot birdie putt. The ball was sitting down on a slight downhill lie, Holmes explained later, and if he’d been five yards closer or eight yards farther back, he probably would have gone for the green in two but basically, he wasn’t optimistic about the lie.
Holmes said he’d play the hole the same way again, given the same lie and circumstances. He was more disturbed that his wedge shot didn’t spin back on the green, leaving him a 15-footer, because he thought it had a chance to get pretty close.
Stallings had some missed chances but the only bogey on his card came at the opening hole. His key stroke was a chip shot that he appeared to mis-hit slightly from just off the edge of the 13th green. The ball took a nice bounce forward, ran toward the pin and went in for eagle. He parred the last five holes.
The fact that Saturday’s leaders backed up left the door open for anyone who could get under par. Which wasn’t many.
For a par 5, the 18th hole plays tough with the firmness of the greens. Stallings and English were eliminated on the first extra hole in the playoff when they laid up and settled for pars. Holmes laid up from a fairway bunker and dropped a wedge just four feet behind the hole for birdie while Day missed the green short and right and made a beautiful pitch stone dead inside a foot.
Holmes airmailed the par-3 16th green on the second extra hole while Day stuck a nice iron shot 15 feet past the cup. Holmes is not a fan of the back tee at 16, which was built for the 2008 U.S. Open held here.
“From that tee back there, it’s a bad hole, to be honest,” Holmes said. “The green wasn’t designed for a shot from back there but I didn’t hit a good shot. I hit 6-iron over the green and I didn’t think I could hit 6-iron that far.”
He had little chance to flop a pitch shot close and misread his comebacker for par.
“The chip went left on the way past and coming back, the putt went left the other way,” Holmes said. “Jason got it done. I didn’t.”
The win by Day gives rise to hope that some young players will rise to fill the void that will be left by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who are struggling with their health and with their games. Woods withdrew after 11 holes Thursday and Mickelson missed his second straight cut.
Holmes is a three-time winner who had a star turn in a Ryder Cup, but brain surgery interrupted his career. While he’s had a top-25 finish in each of the majors, he’s never finished better than 14.
Day, 27, is just a few years older than No. 1 ranked Rory McIlroy and has already shown his range. He’s got five top-four finishes in majors, including runner-ups at the Masters and the U.S. Open. Day is on everyone’s list of potential next great players. This is his third PGA Tour win to go with a win at the Byron Nelson Championship and last year’s World Match Play Championship, and it’s going to moved him up to No. 4 in the world ranking.
So that will make two of the top four in the rankings who are age 27 or less. Throw in reigning U.S. Open champion Martin Kaymer, who turned 30 in December, and some youngish American hopefuls like Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka who aren’t in the top ten yet and, hey, the future of golf might have some potential.