Open wants to be golf’s ul­ti­mate test

Connecticut Post - - SPORTS -

SOUTHAMP­TON, N.Y. — The U.S. Open wants to be the ul­ti­mate test in golf, and some­times that leads to a se­ries of trick ques­tions.

One of them was 14 years ago at Shin­necock Hills.

A year af­ter Jim Furyk tied the U.S. Open scor­ing record at Olympia Fields, the week­end of the 2004 U.S. Open was so bone-dry and light­ning-fast that only three play­ers broke par on the week­end, none on Sun­day. Fans hav­ing to move to the side be­cause of a golf ball rolling to­ward them is not un­usual, ex­cept when the player hit the shot with his put­ter from the green. Tee shots that landed on the sev­enth green rolled off the putting sur­face and into a bunker.

One year af­ter Rory McIl­roy broke the U.S. Open scor­ing at Con­gres­sional, no one broke par at Olympic Club in 2012 when Webb Simp­son won.

Mo­ments like this lead to crit­i­cism that the USGA over­re­acts. Justin Rose sees it an­other way.

“When ev­ery­thing is in bal­ance, it’s kind of bor­ing,” he said. “And I think in life, the closer you get to the edges, that’s where the ex­cite­ment is. So I would say the USGA is not re­ac­tionary. It’s coun­ter­bal­anc­ing. So if you go too far one way, you’ve got to come back the other way. You don’t want to fall off the edge.”

That’s the ques­tion go­ing into the 118th U.S. Open that starts Thurs­day.

Might the USGA lean to­ward go­ing easy on play­ers be­cause of what hap­pened the last time at Shin­necock Hills? Or will it make it tougher on them be­cause of the record scor­ing last year at Erin Hills? Brooks Koepka tied the record to par at 16 un­der, and six other play­ers fin­ished at 10 un­der or lower.

“We’re con­fi­dent this should be a mar­velous test,” said Mike Davis, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the USGA who has been in charge of set­ting up the cour­ses for the U.S. Open since 2006 at Winged Foot, when the win­ning score was 5 over.

Davis be­lieves Shin­necock Hills is right where the USGA wants it, even with a light, steady rain on the fi­nal day of prac­tice.

Wed­nes­day is never the mea­sure of how a golf course presents it­self.

McIl­roy is among those who likes what he sees. But it’s not a U.S. Open if play­ers are not com­plain­ing, and it’s been a quiet three days ahead of com­pe­ti­tion. The big­gest ques­tion is whether the fair­ways are nar­row enough.

They are tighter than last year at Erin Hills, for sure, and an av­er­age of 15 yards wider than in 2004.

“Hon­estly, I think they’ve got it right,” McIl­roy said. “It presents guys with op­tions off the tee. You have to make a de­ci­sion ba­si­cally on every tee box what you’re go­ing to do. I’m ob­vi­ously not that old, but when I watched U.S. Opens on TV and saw these long, nar­row cor­ri­dors of fair­ways and thick rough, that’s what I was used to at a U.S. Open. … If you look at the venues that are com­ing up, they’re very tra­di­tional venues like Oak­mont, Winged Foot, Peb­ble Beach.

“Maybe you’ll see more of what we per­ceive as a tra­di­tional U.S. Open setup.”

Rain was ex­pected to yield to plenty of sun over the next four days, with the strong­est wind on Thurs­day. Davis said he al­ready has called sev­eral au­di­bles on the orig­i­nal plan of where to put the pins on the greens, an ex­am­ple of the USGA not want­ing the course to get on the wild side.

Davis also said the win­ning score is not an is­sue at a ma­jor where par tends to be at a pre­mium.

“Never since I’ve been at the USGA — and it’s been al­most 30 years — I’ve never heard any­body at the USGA say we’re shoot­ing for even par,” Davis said. “But we talk in­ces­santly, ‘How do we get the course to be re­ally a great test of golf?’ As we say, get all 14 clubs dirty to make sure that these play­ers are tested to the nth de­gree.”

And what makes a good cham­pi­onship in­side the ropes?

The qual­ity of the win­ner? Dif­fer­ent play­ers have won the last 15 U.S. Opens, the long­est stretch of the four ma­jors. The mar­gin? The last play­off was 10 years ago when Tiger Woods won at Tor­rey Pines. Three of the last four U.S. Opens have been de­cided by three shots or more.

“You need some great play­ers in the mix,” Rose said. “You need some great sto­ry­lines.”

This U.S. Open is not lack­ing for ei­ther. Five play­ers have a chance to re­place Dustin Johnson at No. 1 in the world this week. Woods is hit­ting the ball well enough to win any week if he ever gets all parts of his game work­ing to­gether. To win a record-ty­ing fourth U.S. Open would cap off an un­likely come­back fol­low­ing four back surg­eries. Phil Mick­el­son, in the USGA record book with his six run­ner-up fin­ishes, needs only this tro­phy to com­plete the career Grand Slam.

“And then just a good test of golf where peo­ple think, ‘Wow, they’ve re­ally stepped up and played great golf un­der pres­sure,’ ” Rose added. “I think that’s what peo­ple would like to see in this tour­na­ment is that guys are tests to the ends of the abil­ity, to whether they can cope or not. And I think that’s part of the charm … not charm, but part of the al­lure of this tour­na­ment.”

The ul­ti­mate test starts Thurs­day. Re­sults won’t be avail­able un­til the end of the week.

An­drew Redington / Getty Images

Rory McIl­roy plays a shot on the sec­ond hole dur­ing a prac­tice round Tues­day be­fore the U.S. Open at Shin­necock Hills Golf Club in Southamp­ton, N.Y.

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