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.

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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.

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