US OPEN REVIEW
Another year, another Brooks Koepka victory and yet another course set-up controversy. John Huggan was at Shinnecock Hills for the major the USGA just can’t seem to get right.
The long-view from Shinnecock Hills, where the USGA somehow managed to surpass itself.
Despite a recent tendency among supposedly expert observers to hail a bogeyfree round as “flawless,” that has never happened. Nor will it ever. Hitting the “perfect” shot happens maybe once in a lifetime if at all, which makes the perfect 18-holes or tournament impossible to achieve.
So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the 2018 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, a championship won for the second straight year by the admirable Brooks Koepka. Maybe we should forgive those within the United States Golf Association (USGA) who made the so obviously flawed decisions that so compromised the integrity of the competition over the course of a sometimes farcical third round. And, given that, maybe we shouldn’t take Phil Mickelson too much to task for running after his first putt on the 13th green during that silly Saturday and, before it had stopped rolling, knocking it back towards the hole. Then again, maybe we should be hard on this ultimately flawed event. Maybe we should be wondering about the USGA and its ongoing ability to competently run one of golf ’s four most important championships. Maybe Phil does deserve punishment over and above the two-shot penalty he incurred for his apparent folly.
Mistakes happen in golf and in life. Everyone learns from them and, hopefully, moves onto better things. Except the USGA apparently. Based on what the world witnessed at Shinnecock Hills – one of golf’s finest courses – this is a (dis) organisation that not only makes mistakes, but the same mistakes over and over again. And for that there is surely no excuse.
So it was that, 14 years on from the nonsense that was the 2004 version of America’s national championship at the same storied venue – you, know, the one that had to be halted when world-class players began putting into bunkers – we had pretty much the same stuff happening again. Yes, Mickelson hit a poor putt on that fateful 13th green. But does anyone really think that the ‘punishment’ for such a petty crime should be watching his ball run off the putting surface and finish maybe 50 yards from the cup? Is that really
the sort of golf we want determining the winner and losers in a major championship?
Indeed, where Mickelson really lost this observer was not in doing what he did. Although on the face of it indefensible and contrary to not only the rules but the very ethos of the game of golf, his actions were understandable and, at least on one level, explainable. Instead of blethering on about using the rules to his advantage and advising anyone offended to “toughen up,” golf’s greatest-ever left-hander simply should have told us all what, one suspects, is in his heart.
If Mickelson – six-times a runner-up in the US Open – had stood outside the scorer’s hut and spilled the real beans, there would still have been plenty of disapproval in some quarters. But if he had said something along the lines of the following, there would also have been a lot of nodding heads in response. Imagine this: “Look guys, I know what I did was wrong. But I did it for a reason. I am making this ridiculous gesture to highlight just how ludicrous the combination of green speeds and pin positions has become at the US Open. We all know this is not the first time this has happened. We’ve all seen balls running down slopes on surfaces that are all but frictionless. That is not golf. Not proper golf anyway.
“So I am prepared to throw myself under the bus in order to make a point that needs to be made. We cannot go on like this. It is madness. And if I am to be disqualified, so be it. It will be worth it in the long run if this is the last time we are forced to endure this form of torture. Now, any questions?”
All of the above would have made perfect sense to anyone unfortunate enough to witness the various shenanigans perpetrated by the USGA over the years. I give you the sight of Payne Stewart watching his ball trickle down the stupidly-canted 18th green at The Olympic Club in 1998. I give you the uncut 18th green at Southern Hills in 2001. I give you the frustration of players – among them Nick Price, one of the finest drivers of his or any other generation – unable to reach the 10th fairway at Bethpage Black in 2002. I give you Shinnecock 2004. I give you the ‘Ryvita-like’ greens at Chambers Bay in 2015. And I give you the stupidly-fast greens at Oakmont in 2016 that provoked the Dustin Johnson/moving ball incident. The list is long and undistinguished.
And here’s the thing. Had Mickelson uttered any or all of that fictional explanation, he would have been 100 per cent vindicated by what went on later that same day. There then would have been no calls for him to be either disqualified or asked to withdraw. There would certainly have been no need for the grovelling apology he released – with public opinion running rapidly against him – days later.
But by appearing so obviously disingenuous, Mickelson did himself no favours. His explanation was clearly flawed, especially when he claimed to be attempting to save himself strokes. Had he declared his ball unplayable after it stopped at the bottom of the now famous slope and returned whence he came, he would likely have made an eight instead of ten.
“All I can say is he hit a moving ball in competition, and that is against the etiquette of the game and the rules of the game,” said Curtis Strange, the last man before Koepka to win back-to-back US Opens. “That’s the best thing I can say. Let everyone else judge for themselves. You don’t do that at your club. You don’t teach juniors to do that. Nobody does that. I do like Phil, I always have. I respected him as a player and a person, but he embarrassed everybody.”
The USGA did a pretty good job in that direction too. Playing in the morning when the course still contained a modicum of moisture, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger were able to shoot 66, rounds that eventually catapulted both players into a tie for the lead entering the final 18 holes. In contrast, the last seven pairings on the course – the 14 men who, until that point, had played the best golf – were a cumulative 93-over par. For the record, this is not a misprint: 93-over par. That figure alone makes Mickelson’s point.
Rickie Fowler, one of that unfortunate
‘THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL OBSESSION WITH LEVEL PAR AS A WINNING SCORE IS A FOLLY.’
group, summed it up best when he said he wished he had been five shots worse after 36 holes. Then maybe he would have had a chance to break par and play something other than defensive golf on day three.
That this is not how things are supposed to be is obvious. While golf is never meant to be completely fair – let’s hope it never is – the disparity between the course presented to those playing early and the fearsome challenge presented to the afternoon wave was too much. Even if Koepka – a top player by anyone’s standards – did emerge as the champion, his victory, through no fault of his own, must carry an asterisk.
So what is going on? Why does the USGA continue to Shinnecock-up the biggest event on their schedule? The answer is clear. The weird and wonderful obsession with level par as a winning score that clearly drives the minds and souls of the blueblazers in charge at the US Open is a folly. An ever-increasing folly. If the USGA and their counterparts across the pond, the R&A, are either unable or unwilling to do something – anything – about the now
mind-bending distances top players hit golf balls, then their only recourse if pars are their aim is to speed up the greens more and more and tuck-away the pins in ever more inaccessible spots. They have been reduced to making increasingly futile gestures in an attempt to rein in the superior player. And they are attempting to do so with course set-ups that allow very little “wiggle room” – as the Americans like to call leeway – between relatively sensible if sometimes brutal conditions and carnage.
Which brings us to what goes on behind the scenes before and during a US Open. Does USGA CEO Mike Davis pay any attention to what the head greenskeeper has to say about presenting the golf course? The answer is “yes and no.”
According to one close observer, Davis and superintendent Jonathan Jennings were in “total collaboration and agreement all week. The basic course conditioning and turf specifications were the product of that collaboration, one that goes back months and extended to meeting every day of the championship through Saturday.”
Where Davis and his USGA cohorts went their own way, however, is in the area of pin positions. Thus, the Monty Pythonlike goings-on that occurred on the 13th, 15th and 18th greens during the third round were solely the responsibility of Davis, not anyone employed by Shinnecock Hills. It simply isn’t good enough to say the wind was stronger than expected. Surely it is not beyond the ken of supposedly experienced officials to realise that if a course is close to the edge at 8am, chances are it is going to be over that edge by 2pm.
“Who said US Open greens are supposed to be so fast?” asks Strange, presumably rhetorically. “Where does it say that, to make a course tough and fair, the greens have to encourage defensive putting? Let’s say we went back to greens running at nine-and-a-half on the Stimpmeter. Now you can put pins on some slopes. I grew up on greens like that. I remember hitting five-footers with huge breaks on them. That’s how you find out who can putt – and read greens.”
Strange – the classic US Open grinder – makes a great point. Greens today are generally so fast everything around the pin has to be pretty much flat. So players make a high percentage of their four and fivefooters. In that sense the game is easier. During the 2016 US Open at Oakmont, Jack Nicklaus recalled the greens were measured at about nine on the Stimpmeter when the championship was there in 1962. And he was worried about the players finishing the course. Yet two years ago the same greens were pushing 14. As Strange
said on television this year, “we have crossed the line and the point of no-return.”
All of which makes one wonder how much longer Davis can last in a course set-up role he first assumed for the 2006 championship at Winged Foot. During his tenure, Davis has overseen a short move away from what might be termed the traditional US Open set-up – narrow fairways, thick “hack-out” rough and fast, firm greens. For that at least he is to be commended. A Grand Slam event should be more than a test of execution, merely “kicking through the goal posts” time after tedious time.
But there has also been much silliness. Dustin Johnson three-putting from “nowhere” on the 72nd green at Chambers Bay only underlined the unevenness of the putting surfaces. And Johnson was made to suffer again this year. Having hit two wonderful shots to the 18th green on day three, the 2016 champion needed threeputts to hole-out. Which came as no surprise to anyone watching. That green was as close to unplayable as this long-time observer of all things golf has ever seen in more than 30 years of viewing major championships. Little wonder that other late-finishers like Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson were indulging in much cursing off-camera before their post-round interviews. Their frustration was both palpable and understandable.
There was also much bemusement behind the scenes. Working as part of the refereeing contingent were representatives of both the PGA Tour and the European Tour. One can only imagine their feelings, neatly summed up by one responding to the question: what exactly are they (the USGA) trying to achieve here?
“I have absolutely no idea,” said one official with vast experience when it comes to setting-up courses for professional players.
Almost lost in all of this pre-occupation with the golf course and the USGA was the fine play produced by Koepka and others on the final day. Finally realising – albeit reluctantly – that at least some of the world’s leading players might just be able to shoot low numbers, Davis capitulated overnight. Shinnecock Hills was thus presented in a fashion that produced 15 sub-par scores but also 14 of 75 or more.
That this is the ideal scenario cannot be over-emphasised. On a course that remained challenging for any player struggling even a little, a man at the top of his game, Tommy Fleetwood, was able to get round in a championship record equalling 63. Fowler also shot 65, an improvement of only 19 shots on the previous day. Had they not been able to perform such feats – ie Saturday afternoon all over again – logic would suggest that there is something wrong with the course. Or in the way it was presented.
Koepka too deserves much credit. When Fleetwood’s aggregate of 282 was posted, the eventual champion was reaching the turn at one-over par. In other words, the 27-year old Floridian played the back-nine on one of the world’s toughest courses under major championship pressure in level par to win by a shot. For his trouble, he picked up $2.16m but also the respect of all who witnessed his play down the stretch. Just as Retief Goosen had done 14 years earlier, Koepka was seemingly close to infallible when putting from anywhere between eight and 15 feet.
“I made all the clutch eight-to-ten footers that you need to make to keep momentum going,” he said. “I didn’t drive it that great. But you can make up for a lot with a hot putter.”
The biggest putt of the day was, ironically, for a bogey. Having gone from side-to-side on the dangerous par-3 11th, Koepka holed from maybe ten feet for a four. “A great bogey,” he acknowledged.
Still, for all his heroics and stellar play, the first repeat champion in almost 30 years will not be the lasting memory of the 118th US Open Championship. Disappointingly, that “honour,” yet again, must go to Mike Davis and the USGA. Like it or not, they were the story at a major championship played on what many believe is America’s best golf course. And for that, they should be ashamed.
‘GREENS TODAY ARE NOW SO FAST EVERYTHING AROUND THE PIN HAS TO BE PRETTY MUCH FLAT.’
It might have been a bogey, but it was enough for Brooks Koepka to seal back-to-back US Opens.
An opening 80 all but ended McIlroy’s hopes of making the cut, let alone adding a fifth major.