U.S. Open was a version of golf I can understandby J.W. Miller on 06/18/18
My golf group this morning was buzzing about the U.S. Open golf tournament. How could we not? Finally, we saw the pros play a version of the game we see every round. Ten-foot downhill putts turning into 20-foot uphill putts. Approach shots approaching nothing resembling par. Short chips skidding across the green, only to land in a puff of sand in the nearest trap. Two-foot putts rimming the hole and bounding away. That’s the game my golf buddies and I play. The winner is the one who sucks less than the rest.
And that perfectly describes Brooks Koepka’s stirring one-over-par victory over attrition. The U.S. Open course at Shinnecock Hills on eastern Long Island was brutal, humbling and unforgiving, just like the courses we play every day. Candidly, it’s more our skill level and not the course that makes our rounds less than stellar. But play in the major was so erratic that I almost felt they should have been hitting from the forward – aka “old man” – tees. The 2018 U.S. Open could be packaged and redistributed as a sequel: “Survivors on Bent Grass.”
The often unplayable conditions brought on by wind-hardened greens and sinister pin placements made it appear as though U.S. Golf Association officials were riding through the course on a herd of elephants, batting away errant approaches and penalizing any shot that was not perfect. It seemed that only Caddyshack’s Carl Spackler could have corrected the layout, one molehill at a time. As a golf fan, I want to see these athletes exhibit their skill on a challenging tract and generally prevail. It was not like that at Shinnecock Hills. Putting often resembled bowling balls rolling over a cliff. Pins positioned sadistically on the edge of a precipice beckoned, but too much club and they were rolling, rolling, rolling; keep those bogies (and double-bogies) rolling, Rawhide!
If there is a villain here, it is the USGA, the governing body that determines how difficult a championship course should be. The suits seemed intent on stretching difficulty into impossibility. Former No. 1 in the world Justin Thomas commented Saturday: “The USGA apparently didn’t realize when the wind got up the course is unplayable,” although he “clarified” his comments later on Twitter. Zach Johnson said Shinnecock was as beautiful a piece of property as you’ll see, but “they’ve lost the course.”
Player frustration reached its zenith Saturday when Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson overcooked a putt on 13 that kept rolling, and he inexplicably chased the ball as it was headed for the ravine. Phil slapped it back toward the hole, thereby triggering a two-stroke penalty, and incredulity from the golfing Pharisees. Paul Azinger calls it “the most out of character” move he’s ever seen while former USGA boss David Fay called it “a disregard for the game of golf.” I saw it as Phil probably intended it: as a protest. Fox TV analyst, former pro Frank Nobilo, obviously agreed: “The best player in the world shot 77 (Dustin Johnson on Saturday), and he said he played pretty well. Is that how we want golf?”
It’s not like the USGA wasn’t warned what could happen. When the U.S. Open last came to Shinnecock Hills in 2004, the seventh green was so hard to play for the first two groups on the final day that the first four players took three triple bogeys and a bogey before USGA officials decided to water the green between every pairing. This time, the unplayable label was extended to even more holes, and any watering came after the rounds.
The other major sports don’t have such legislated encumbrances yet. Maybe next year, the NBA finals will reduce the diameter of the goals to six inches, or maybe Super Bowl teams will be required to wear blindfolds in the first and fourth quarters. Branded with the teams’ logos, of course! How about the NHL playoffs being skated over a piranha tank covered by razor-thin ice. Baseball would be easier to screw up; just move the pitcher’s mound from 60 feet 6 inches to 40 feet.
It’s frightening to think, but the USGA might not be through humiliating the best golfers in the world. After giving the players a breather in 2019 at pristine Pebble Beach, the USGA is taking its 2020 road show to Winged Foot golf club in Mamaroneck, just north of New York City. For you sadistory buffs, the highest winning score in U.S. Open history came in 1974 when Hale Irwin won at seven-over-par. Just behind is the 2006 tournament won by Geoff Ogilvie at five-over. Both of those were played at Winged Foot.
Yep, and the folks at Winged Foot have two years to double down on their in-state neighbor, and turn it into an exhibition that even my Monday morning group might choose to pass up. We see that type of futility every day.