Sitting at home watching the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, the first emotion I felt was envy. I’ve missed the last two championships after playing a ton of them in a row, but 2018 was different from 2017. Apart from a little bit of bruised ego, I wasn’t jealous at all of those who played at Erin Hills last year. It looked like a pretty good one to miss.
Not so this year.
Shinnecock Hills is a wonderful course and I would love to have been there. Opens at places that are so special almost get more attention and carry with them a bit more credibility. But once I started watching, my initial envy turned quickly to interest. I ended up watching more golf than I have in many years. It was just so enjoyable.
I loved seeing how the course played. I was keen to see how the USGA would present each hole. In the lead-up to the championship, in fact, it did seem like it had created the perfect set-up. But, as things turned out, it only seemed that way. And, as usual, the organisers came in for a fair bit of criticism, especially on the third day when the scores soared in the afternoon.
That’s a bit of a knee-jerk reaction though. To my mind, this is a pretty complex issue. I don’t think it was as simple as the USGA falling asleep at the wheel. I don’t think it was just the USGA puffing out its chest in a display of bravado. There is much more to it than that.
For maybe 100 years the set-up of US Open courses was totally predictable. They were long. They were narrow. There was “hack-out” rough as soon as you missed a fairway. In fact, there was rough basically everywhere, surrounding very small playing areas. If you missed you were “done.” That was the basic theory, one that lasted a long time.
Then (USGA chief executive officer) Mike Davis was put in charge. He seemed to get how one-dimensional the championship had become. And how boring it could be to play and to watch. So he decided to find a different way to challenge the world’s best golfers.
At Winged Foot in 2006, the rough was “graduated,” progressively longer and thicker the farther you got from the fairway. Then he took the US Open to some “different” venues like Pinehurst No. 2, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills. Now, we don’t quite know what we’re going to get each year. The set-ups have varied so much since Mike took over.
Which is why I think Mike set-up Shinnecock Hills more interestingly than just “really narrow.” You have to admire him for trying to achieve that ideal, yet still make it difficult. But there’s a problem with that. Using today’s equipment, it has become so much easier for leading players to hit the ball long and straight. Back in the day, there were always long-hitters, but only a handful could combine that length with enough accuracy to contend in a US Open.
“Straight” is the important part of this equation, not “long.” If you mis-hit a drive with a persimmon wood, the ball went sideways. So most players prioritised a solid hit over clubhead speed. Now the large-headed metal drivers are easier to hit straight, so if you give guys more room they will make distance their priority. And that means, when a course is set-up as Shinnecock Hills was, the only remaining defence is the speed of the greens. In the absence of narrow fairways and thick rough, crazy-fast putting surfaces are the only way to prevent crazy-low scores.
Which is why all of the recent controversies at US Opens have happened on the greens. Mike is trying to do the right thing, but at the elite level of the game the players are just too good. Trying to dictate their scores is just too difficult to do. Attempting to create conditions where even-par is the winning score is therefore a massive mistake.
The worst way to challenge professional golfers is with super-slick greens. It can go bad really quickly, as we have seen at multiple US Opens over the last few years, which seems obvious. But the one thing the USGA seems to be stuck on is the level of scoring. There was always going to be a reaction to Erin Hills, where the winning score was 16-under par. The USGA doesn’t like to see numbers like that in its “national championship.” That’s just not its thing.
That’s flawed thinking of course. “Par” is such an arbitrary line in the sand. The difference between a regular PGA Tour or European Tour event and the US Open is that the people who set up the courses on those circuits don’t care about the winning score. They get the tees right. They get the fairways right. They grow the rough a little bit. They maybe speed up the greens a little. But generally, all they are trying to do is make that particular course as good as it can be. Whatever the guys shoot, they shoot.
“There was always going to be a reaction to Erin Hills, where the winning score was 16-under par. The USGA doesn’t like to see numbers like that in its ‘national championship’. That’s just not its thing.” – Geoff Ogilvy
And that’s how every tournament in the world works. Except for the US Open. Only very rarely does anyone leave a regular event complaining about the course set-up. Instead, they are talking about the golf that was played and the shots that were hit.
In the immediate wake of Shinnecock Hills, the panel of three – Brandel Chamblee, David Duval and Frank Nobilo – on America’s Golf Channel spent a few minutes discussing Brooks Koepka’s great victory and almost two hours talking about the USGA and how it keeps getting things wrong. That’s just a bad situation. And such a shame.
Still, even after all that, I think this US Open was a terrific event. It was great to watch, apart from Saturday, which was ridiculous. Then the USGA flipped back too much the other way on Sunday. Because it had to. If it had not, its position as leaders in the world of golf would come into question, which would be disappointing.
There are more than a few people at the USGA who “get it.” Nick Price’s involvement is such a good thing going forward. He will surely improve communication between the players and the officials. So they have the best intentions. But there are still too many people roaming the halls who don’t begin to get it.
All of what we saw at Shinnecock smacks to me of the USGA trying to make up for letting the advances in equipment slip through the cracks. Yes, the course set-ups are more interesting than before. I like that the “Mike Davis era” has brought more variety in that area. But sometimes that feels like they are trying too hard to fix the equipment ‘mistake’. Assuming it was a mistake, what we saw at Shinnecock is the wrong way to fix it. I hate to say this because it is against my religion, but they need to narrow the fairways again.