The Ballad of Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines

The Ballad of Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines

"Little ditty about Torrey and Phil,

Two American kids growing up in the San Diego hills.

Phil says “I’m gonna be a golfing star,”

Torrey Hills says “I’m gonna grow U.S. Open-far.”

 The History of Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines

Alright, putting away the acoustic guitar. It’s a ditty almost as synonymous as “Jack & Diane” for fans of the PGA Tour, describing two icons that have been part of the professional golfing world for decades.

The South course at Torrey Pines has hosted a PGA event for more than 50 consecutive years. The name has changed; it opened for 20 years as the Andy Williams Open (not a rocker but still...shout-out to Andy), and eventually settled into its role as the Farmers Insurance Open. It will now host its second U.S. Open.

A U.S. Open that has newfound relevance to the other party from our Mellencamp cover. Phil Mickelson’s history with the U.S. Open is notorious: Six second-place finishes suggest fate has actively worked against a career Grand Slam for Lefty. At age 50, it seemed Mickelson might not even qualify to even give a symbolic attempt at Torrey Pines, the favorite muni for his San Diego hometown.

Maybe you heard, but old Phil managed to win the PGA Championship, despite staggering odds.

Can he do the same at Torrey Pines? It all comes down to which Phil shows up at his hometown muni...a golf complex he has a complex relationship with. To understand his best and worst moments at the course is to understand the course itself, and vice-versa. So hang with us while we explain our tips on what to look for at Torrey Pines, as experienced by Phil Mickelson.

1993 Buick California Open at Torrey Pines

Walk a little slower. Enjoy the day.

An analysis of Torrey Pines South, carried out by hardcore golf course architecture enthusiasts, is bound to be a fraught affair. There is plenty of controversy surrounding both Rees Jones’s renovation work — which Phil will comment on later — as well as William F. Bell’s original design. But this approach to analyzing golf courses can overlook one of the most essential elements of Torrey Pines: an amazing piece of property.

Like Kiawah, Torrey Pines sits on the coast. Unlike Kiawah, the South Course sits atop high cliffs, offering vistas worthy of a different U.S. host up north, Pebble Beach. Holes like No. 3, an iconic par three playing downhill toward both the ocean and one of the property’s famous canyons, offer a golfing experience beyond simple strategic understanding. The impressive views westward from the fairway on No. 4, or the canyon that divides Nos. 6 and 7, deserve appreciation.

Mickelson, at his most zen, understood this simple joy, even when competing in a PGA event. During the 1993 Buick California Open at Torrey, the 22 year-old was down by one stroke with nine to play. He told caddie Jim “Bones” MacKay “let’s walk a little slower. Let’s enjoy the day.” He enjoyed it; five birdies later, he had his second professional victory.

Our Tip: If you get the chance to check Torrey out, keep pace of play in mind, but also admire the hell out of just where you’re playing golf.


2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines

But seriously. It’s long.

The USGA has a reputation when it comes to U.S. Open course setups. Although The Masters is known for “defending the virtue of par,” the U.S. Open comes armed to the teeth, usually emphasizing a combination of thin fairways and fast greens, to armor-up already-difficult golf courses against the world’s best.

The 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey  Pines was one example. Only three players maintained par, and Tiger Woods overcame Rocco Mediate in a playoff after both finished at -1. The course had been tightened up by Rees Jones, known as the “Open Doctor” for doing fairway liposuction on behalf of the USGA. During 2008, it played a massive 7,643 yards.

Mickelson has vented his frustrations with the USGA plenty (see: still-moving putt at Shinnecock) and 2008 was no different (see: next section). Lefty also hurt his cause by, well, “Phil being Phil.” Obviously there’s value in accuracy when fairways get down to just 30 yards in width...but when the course is 7,600 yards, a driver helps. Mickelson, who had been known to carry two drivers, chose to bring neither to Torrey. He finished +6.

Our Tip: The course could play as long as 7,800 yards for the 2021 event. We suggest both you, and Phil, bring a driver when you come to Torrey Pines.

2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines (continued)

The Lows of Being Phil

Mickelson has had numerous low points during the U.S. Open, with the meltdown at Winged Foot probably topping the list. But there’s something to be said for being humiliated on your home turf by a hole you had publicly derided.

For context, Mickelson was a heavy favorite heading to Torrey Pines during 2008. Not only had he won twice already that year, the locals made it a true home-crowd affair. Not that Phil has ever held back, but perhaps Phil felt emboldened to attack Jones’s handling of his “home” course. A particular source of ire was the lengthening of No. 13, a previously reachable par five that encouraged eagle-seekers. Jones located a new tee back and to the left, lengthening the hole to 620 yards, requiring a pretty epic 240-yard canyon carry from the tee.

“That new tee box is terrible,” Mickelson said before the tournament. “It’s the biggest waste of money that I’ve ever seen. There’s no other way to look at it.”

He was correct that it killed most eagles chances. But the only golfer whose week it may have ruined was Mickelson. Tiger Woods three-putted No. 13 for bogey on Saturday, but Mickelson took a quadruple bogey that day. Three consecutive approach shots to this notorious false front came back to his feet, way below the putting surface.

Our Tip: The lesson for you is that, despite its seaside location, there is plenty of roll in them hills.


2011 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines

The Highs of Being Phil

Mickelson has won at Torrey Pines...three times in fact. But there is a certain joy in second-place finishes as well. Phil is known to appreciate side bets, and understands when odds are bad. It’s a fact that can come into conflict with his strong desire to win. Such a case occurred when trailing Bubba Watson by one stroke at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open.

Big-hitting Watson had gotten on the green in two, and a birdie was almost assured. Mickelson didn’t have the muscle to get past the pond in front of the green (the only water hazard on the course), so had laid up to 72 yards. The golfer walked to the green, where the flag was perched almost on top of the pond, and considered his options. Odds were far more likely he put the ball in the drink rather than have a realistic shot at dunking it for eagle. Mickelson stood to lose money if he lost shots from a penalty. But you need guts to get glory.

So perhaps the greatest wedge player ever sent MacKay to tend the flag on a 72-yard lob. It hit and it began rolling backwards, but wind at Mickelson’s back stopped it a few feet short. Watson breathed in relief.

Our Tip: The moral? Even amid the muscle of Torrey Pines’s 7,600 yards, there’s risk and reward to be considered. Just don’t try the Mickelson shot we just described. That’s something for him, and very few other human beings to even think about.

2015 Torrey Pines Renovation

There’s More to Torrey Than South

Farmers Open viewers know that the South course doesn’t get all the fun; the North also receives professional play. And, just like how Torrey can’t be boiled down to just one course, Mickelson can’t be boiled down to just a guy who golfs. He’s also a guy who designs golf courses.

Mickelson kickstarted the North course renovation conversation, making a pitch to San Diego’s mayor that his team would redesign greens and widen fairways, while also bringing the scenic canyon into play and replacing 22 acres of golf turf with native habitat. The plan essentially added strategic intrigue to the course while making it more environmentally friendly. It seemed like an obvious win-win. Until bureaucracy got in the way.

First, additional “needs” were added onto the proposal by the city, swelling the budget from Mickelson’s proposed $6 million to more than $12 million. Then, the California Fair Political Practices Commission ruled Mickelson could not win the job, ironically, because he had initiated the project through his discussions with the mayor. The job ended up going to Tom Weiskopf, who carried out a plan similar to Mickelson’s vision.

It was a bummer for Phil, but he can take solace knowing that he at least lit the fire behind the well-received renovation.

Our Tip: Those with the time should consider checking out Torrey’s North course as part of a 36-hole day, perhaps as a warm-up for the scarier South course.

Remember to enjoy the views and also the history while you’re there. After all, not too long ago, another golfer stood in your place and imagined playing the game for a living. Few places can better tell the Phil Mickelson story than Torrey Pines.

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