By: Sam Gemini
MADISON – For the second time in the history of this great tournament, the U. S. Open golf championship returned to the sheer cliffs of La Jolla, California. Anticipation was thick with the memory of the famous and dramatic win by Tiger Woods at this venue in 2008. Who would emerge this year from the dense coastal fog that shrouded the storied canyons of Torrey Pines? The journey to the answer was a thrilling and tumultuous one.
The tournament got off to a bumpy start as a heavy marine layer caused a seventy-five-minute fog delay on Thursday morning. As a result, a small handful of players had to finish their opening rounds on Friday morning. Heading into the weekend, the top of the leaderboard was utterly bizarre: Unknown and unproven Russell Henley held a share of the lead with somebody named Richard Bland; if this name doesn’t ring a bell for you, you’re not alone – Bland had achieved his first win on the European Tour just a week prior after over 450 starts, and suddenly found himself on top of the leaderboard on Saturday, the oldest player (forty-eight) ever to hold this position in U. S. Open history. Bland hung around for nine holes or so before running out of steam and shooting seventy-seven on Saturday and seventy-eight on Sunday. An unspectacular finish, but a very cool weekend for the Englishman.
The buildup continued to grow as Sunday arrived, the leaderboard stacking up with superstar names and still a couple of unknowns. Young MacKenzie Hughes, who was playing in just his fourth U.S. Open, held a share of the lead following an outstanding Saturday afternoon. Rory McIlroy also had a phenomenal third round, catapulting himself into the penultimate group just two shots back on Sunday. Like Bland on Saturday, Hughes hung around for a few holes before faltering, as did Russell Henley who was still tied for first to start the final round.
The leaderboard became increasingly turbulent as the afternoon wore on. Massive names – such as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka – that started the day farther behind began to creep near the lead. Louis Oosthuizen was hanging around near the top as he so often does in majors, and defending champion Bryson DeChambeau jumped out in front as he turned to the back nine. Meanwhile, McIlroy appeared to regain his old killer confidence as he strived to put an end to an incomprehensible seven-year major-championship drought. The drama continued to build as the leaderboard grew ever more congested; at one point, the lead was shared by four players, and seven more were just one shot back.
As the frontrunners made the turn to the back nine, chaos ensued. Henley and Hughes had fallen completely out of contention; McIlroy followed a bogey on eleven with a devastating double-bogey on twelve, effectively taking himself out of the race; DeChambeau – who held a one shot lead at the start of his second nine – collapsed spectacularly with a jaw-dropping forty-four on the back-nine, finishing nine strokes behind first place. Meanwhile, Oosthuizen was steadily hanging
around, finding himself holding a two-shot lead with seven holes-to-go. But a formidable young talent was quietly creeping up behind him.
Number-two-in-the-world Jon Rahm charged onto the scene, one shot behind Oosthuizen with two holes to play. In a finish that is the definition of the word “clutch”, the twenty-six-year-old Spaniard drained a sharply breaking right-to-left birdie putt on the seventeenth to tie. On the par-five finishing hole, he left himself a highly difficult bunker shot for his third, splashing it out to fifteen-feet from the hole and burying the resulting birdie putt to take the outright lead. The gallery packed around the eighteenth green erupted in a deafening roar as the ball dropped to the bottom of the cup.
The big Spaniard now had to endure an excruciating wait as he watched Oosthuizen attempt to tie his lead; the South African came up short in the final holes as he has so many times before, and the 2021 U. S. Open Champion was crowned: Jon Rahm had won his first-ever major championship. This is an exciting time for one of the most promising and talented young golfers, one who many believe will be in the hall of fame when all is said and done. We will find out if the young man can ride the momentum and build on this massive victory at the end of July when Royal St. George’s hosts the oldest championship in golf – the Open Championship in Britain.