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A return to Torrey Pines and prime time for the U.S. Open

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, watches his shot from the 14th tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SAN DIEGO – The USGA is starting to escape that reputation of an East Coast bias for the U.S. Open.

The return to Torrey Pines for the 121st U.S. Open means another prime-time show along the Eastern seaboard, and that's happening with greater frequency for the U.S. Open.

It wasn't until the 48th edition of this national championship that it ventured farther west than Colorado, with Ben Hogan winning at Riviera in Los Angeles in 1948. That was the start of eight U.S. Opens in California over a span of 50 years.

The next 25 years include just as many U.S. Opens on the West Coast, which includes Los Angeles Country Club in 2023.

One appeal is being able to go prime time, with the weekend finish anticipated for 7 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday.

“It's always good to have a West Coast site leading into the next TV negotiations or coming out of it,” former USGA executive director David Fay said.

The start of a 12-year agreement with Fox (since returned to NBC) was 2015 at Chambers Bay south of Seattle. The next TV contract would start in 2027 at Pebble Beach.

And then there's the weather.

“I've been looking at the forecast,” Jordan Spieth said before he even arrived at Torrey Pines. “Cooler nights, 75 degrees in the day and no rain. They can do whatever they want.”

As comfortable as it sounds, that's not necessarily comfortable for the players. All indications from three days of practice is the USGA has the South course right where it wants it, with little chance of something unexpected causing the wrong kind of havoc.

Missing the fairways is enough of a problem. Of greater concern might be missing the green. Wilco Nienaber, the big basher from South Africa, found that out behind the fifth green Wednesday. All he could do was chop at it to get it up in the air and move it forward, and then watch it roll some 25 feet by the hole.

Dustin Johnson plays his shot from the second tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Sure, it's tough. That's what players have come to expect from the U.S. Open. And that works anywhere in the country, East and West, or somewhere in between.

“It's fairways and greens,” Rory McIlroy said. “It's a proper U.S. Open test.”

McIlroy arrived later than usual for the U.S. Open, mainly because he played the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January. It's not the same — not even close — though he has a familiarity of where the ball should be going, where not to miss.

His hope is not to be too slow out of the gates. McIlroy has gone seven years since he last won a major in the 2014 PGA Championship, a stretch too long for that amount of talent.

In his last three majors, two of them the Masters, he has started 75-76-75.

“Probably just putting a little too much pressure on myself, playing too carefully, being a little tentative," McIlroy said. “I think that sort of sums it up.”

Adam Scott, of Australia, plays his shot from the 16th tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

McIlroy at least has won recently, at Quail Hollow. Dustin Johnson hasn't won in four months. He felt the pieces start coming together last week in South Carolina, right up until a triple bogey on the 16th hole Sunday that dropped him out of the top 10.

“If I can drive it well, I feel like I’m going to have a really good week,” Johnson said

The course, as always, figures to take the stage even from the silly feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka.

Mike Davis, the retiring CEO of the USGA, walked the course over the weekend and was reminded of how tough it played in 2008. Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate finished at 1-under 283, with Woods beating him in 19 holes of a playoff.

“It played like a U.S. Open should,” Davis said. “You had to hit all the shots. We tested shot-making skills. We tested your course management. We tested your ability to handle your nerves when it most counts.”

That's what we saw this year and Davis said, “Can't wait for it.”

Patrick Reed prepares to play his shot from the 12th tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

When does it return after this year? That question is a little more complicated. During that early 50-year stretch of eight Opens in California, Riviera had it 1948 and the other seven were divided between Olympic Club and Pebble Beach.

Torrey Pines was part of a push to go public. Fay lobbied for Bethpage Black in 2002 and that turned out to a big hit, especially with Woods holding off Phil Mickelson along the back nine. The second version was a rain-soaked mess that was lucky to finish on Monday — Lucas Glover was the winner — and it's no longer in the picture.

Would the U.S. Open have returned if Woods had not won?

“Having the champion you want does help,” said David Fay, the former USGA executive director when Bethpage and Torrey were awarded the Opens.

The USGA is planning a rotation of U.S. Open courses that include Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills and Pinehurst, leaving less room for others.

“We love Torrey Pines, and let's see what unfolds this week,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA's senior managing director of championships. “Again, I’m not going to speculate on the future, but we love everything about this place. ... It will get every bit of consideration it deserves.”

Whether there's room for Torrey Pines, redemption for Chambers Bay, a star in the making at Los Angeles Country Club, the West Coast tends to put on a prime-time show.

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, left, and Dustin Johnson, right, point from the second tee box during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A marshal overlooks the Pacific Ocean from the fifth green during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan, plays his shot from the 14th tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Patrick Cantlay, right, and Gary Woodland chip on the 12th green during a practice round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)