If there is one constant to the U.S. Open, it's that it is always played on great golf courses. Most years, those great courses also happen to be the bastions of privilege and privacy. Think Oakmont last year, Winged Foot the year before, Shinnecock in 2005, Merion in 2013.
In a nod toward taking the game to the people, the U.S. Golf Association occasionally brings the Open to public courses that even you and I might play, assuming, of course, we're financially flush. Think Pinehurst No. 2 and Pebble Beach, posh resorts where rounds of golf run toward $500.
But lately, in an effort to make our national championship as diverse as our nation, the USGA has begun truly bringing the Open to the people on courses that are not only public but also reasonably affordable.
There was Bethpage Black in 2002, the behemoth of the New York state parks, where residents can play for $50 and rates for nonresidents top out at $120. Down the road, in 2015, the USGA has picked a budding, young superstar course, Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Wash., where a weekend round goes for $140.
This week, center stage belongs to Torrey Pines South Course, a municipal course like Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia, owned by the City of San Diego, only big, beautiful, brawny, and built along the breathtaking cliffs of the Pacific, like Pebble Beach.
Plenty of golf fans already know Torrey Pines. For years, it has hosted the Buick Invitational, a regular late-January stop on the PGA Tour that Tiger Woods has won six times and hometown favorite Phil Mickelson has won three times.
Growing up in Southern California, Mickelson and Woods came to know and love Torrey Pines. Just five months ago, in his latest victory in the Buick, Woods manhandled the course, finishing at 19 under par.
At the USGA, where they take pride in winning scores around even par for the Open, they did not panic. That's because they knew that the course Woods was torching in January at the Buick was a far cry from the course he and 154 others will face this week for the Open.
"We got a fair number of calls right after the Buick when Tiger shot 19 under, saying are we nervous about Torrey Pines being too easy for the Open," said Mike Davis, senior director of rules and competitions for the USGA. "Our fear - knowing what the kikuyu [grass] was going to be like, knowing what the firmness was going to be like - is that Torrey Pines, given the length of the golf course, is one place that actually could become too tough."
Almost since the day they announced in 2003 that the Open was headed to Torrey Pines, once as scruffy as Cobbs Creek, the USGA has been planning - or plotting - how to muscle up the course to make it Open-worthy.
As always, they stretched it. This week, Torrey Pines will play 7,643 yards, 74 yards longer than it does for the Buick, making it 379 yards longer than any other course in the 107-year history of the Open. Yet the USGA also shaved a stroke off par, to 71.
These days, the top players laugh in the face of long holes. They've got bigger problems. In January for the Buick, Torrey Pines' fairways and greens are soft and wet and, as a result, easy pickings for the pros. Not so for the Open. The USGA has the fairways and greens running dry and fast, with the putting surfaces expected to run a dicey 12 to 13 on the Stimpmeter.
Worse still will be the rough, which is a mix of rye and the kikuyu Davis mentioned - nasty, gnarly, ball-gobbling stuff with the texture of chicken wire. Again this year, the USGA has gradually stepped up the rough, with the kikuyu getting deeper and deeper the farther you miss the fairway.
Just off the fairway will be a 6-foot ribbon of 1¾-inch-high intermediate cut. Next to that is a 15-foot swath of 2½-inch-high, first-cut primary rough. Beyond that is the really bad stuff, a 3½-inch deep second cut. Hit your ball in there and, if you can find it, figure on hacking out with a wedge.
Among those giving a thumbs-up to what they've seen of the setup for the Open are Greg Norman, former No. 1 player in the world, and NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller. Norman called it the "toughest, fairest test" he'd seen for an Open.
This being California, the one element the USGA cannot control is the fog. Anyone who remembers the last time the Open was on the West Coast - 2000 at Pebble Beach - will recall mornings of blinding fog that caused tee times to be pushed back for hours.
But, hey, there is plenty of time to worry about that later.
Thursday through Sunday
At Torrey Pines Golf Course (South),