By John Reitman
Viewers of last week’s U.S. Open might have experienced a feeling of deja vu.
The sight of lightly struck golf balls sliding off toasty putting surfaces that were more brown than green during Saturday’s third round at Shinnecock Hills was reminiscent of the final round drama that unfolded the last time the Open was held in posh Southampton 14 years ago.
The problem Saturday wasn’t just slick greens. Sure, they were fast, but the real issue was the placement of a few back nine cup locations — namely on Nos. 13-15 — that were too close to the edge of Shinnecock’s massive greens. Together with slick conditions and increasing wind, the result was a back nine that confounded the game’s best players and caused one of its biggest stars to spit in the face of the rules for his own benefit.
Unless the USGA gets answers to some very difficult questions, golf’s governing body probably will experience deja vu all over again when its biggest event of the year returns to Long Island in 2024.
During the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, the USGA’s set-up team ordered the greens mowed to a razor’s edge and withheld water after the third round. By the time the ocean breeze kicked up off the Atlantic on Sunday afternoon, the greens turned various shades of brown and purple and were so fast that many rejected even the best approach shots. Conditions were so unfair that the grounds crew was watering some of the greens between pairings just to prevent every single shot from bouncing off the playing surface.
Prior to this year’s open, the USGA’s set-up team promised it wouldn’t lose control of playing conditions again at Shinnecock.
They were wrong.
USGA officials claim to have underestimated the wind conditions for Saturday afternoon.
For example, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau each shot a 4-under 66 in the morning and found themselves in Sunday’s final pairing. Dustin Johnson, the 36-hole leader, shot a 7-over 77 in the final round of the day.
Conditions were so brutal on some holes that five-time major winner Phil Mickelson took a swipe at a moving ball on No. 13 rather than face the prospect of playing another shot from the bottom of a hill. Players accustomed to attacking pins week in and week out did what they do best when conditions aren’t flawless — they turned their assaults toward the USGA instead.
Zach Johnson told TV viewers the USGA had “lost the course;” Ian Poulter took to Twitter, asking the USGA if “Bozo” was responsible for course set-up.
Anyone who has followed the U.S. Open knows the USGA wants the venue for its biggest event to stand up to par. They don’t want every tour pro attacking pins and the winner posting a score of 20-under-par.
During the past several decades, golf courses have been stretched and tweaked to keep up with ball and club technology that allow even the worst weekend hacker to bomb the ball off the tee.
For example, in previous U.S. Opens, Shinnecock measured 6,912 yards in 1986, 6,944 yards in 1995 and 6,996 yards in 2004. This year, the course played to par 70 over 7,445 yards, which included a 616-yard par 4.
The USGA and the R&A (the game’s European governing body) have had ample opportunity to step forward to try to limit the golf ball and club technology but have refused to take a stand.
But stretching the course doesn’t always work. Patrick Reed won this year’s Masters at 15-under-par on an Augusta National layout that played to 7,435 yards. In 2010, when Vijay Singh won at 10-under, the course covered 6,985 yards.
In 2000, the average driving distance among PGA Tour players was 272 yards. Today, that number is 295 yards. A total of 55 tour players average more than 300 yards off the tee. Six players had drives of 400 yards or more during this year’s Open at Shinnecock.
There was a day when narrow fairways and deep rough were enough for the USGA to defend par. Stray tee shots translated to a race for second place. But now, thanks to drivers with trampoline faces and balls designed to fly farther than ever, players bomb away from the tee and recovery from even the most errant shots typically requires only a short iron.
Because of its inertia in governing ball and club technology, the USGA now is in a position where the only way to protect the course against 400-yard drives is tricked-up greens on which conditions easily can go south.
The USGA has some choices to make, and until one of them includes limiting ball and club technology or accepting high scores at its premier event this story will always have a sequel.
John Reitman is director of news and education for TurfNet, an Orlando, Florida-based news service for the golf industry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.