SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Given the wildly fluctuating course set-ups from day to day at the 118th U.S. Open, the United States Golf Association lucked into a great leader board, a back-to-back champion in Brooks Koepka and enough final-round drama to hold the critics at bay.
Still, the question hangs in the air like a Dustin Johnson 3-iron: Why can’t the USGA get it right?
Shinnecock Hills was almost impossibly difficult Saturday, when Ian Poulter wondered in a tweet if “Bozo set up the course,” Phil Mickelson made a mockery of the Rules of Golf by playing hockey on the 13th green and numerous players stomped their soft spikes and cried foul.
The reactionary USGA, already up to its blazer crests in bad publicity, went the other way Sunday, muzzling Shinnecock so that Tommy Fleetwood had five consecutive 3s on his card in a 63 that tied the major championship record and Patrick Reed started birdie-birdie-birdie-par-birdie. Was this the final round of a U.S. Open or a Sunday member-guest?
Then there was Rickie Fowler, who improved upon his third-round score by 19 shots (84-65).
“That’s the course I enjoy playing,” Fowler said.
U.S. OPEN: Leader board
USGA executive director Mike Davis is a smart and honorable man and a golf guy through and through. The U.S. Open is his baby, and it’s his mission to test the players without embarrassing them. He admitted the organization got it wrong Saturday. Is it so hard to straddle that line?
“You wouldn’t think so,” said Steve Stricker, “but how many times have we watched them on TV, like Mike Davis last night, saying the same thing year after year? It’s like you come to expect it when you come here.”
As a members’ course Shinnecock Hills is a delight. As the site of our national championship, despite its storied history, its wind-swept beauty and its standing among the great American courses, it might be on the verge of being obsolete.
We saw it in 2004, when the USGA turned the seventh green into a miniature Sahara Desert, and we saw it again Saturday, when the course changed drastically from morning to afternoon because of a set-up that didn’t properly account for sun and wind, turning the leader board upside down.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North said he had never seen a golf course change so dramatically over the course of one day. Not even in Scotland.
Some might say that’s the rub of the green, but when players who barely survive the cut are able to make up eight or 10 shots on the players who are ostensibly on top of their games, something is wrong.
“They always err on the wrong side of that line,” Stricker said of the USGA. “Today, they erred way on the safe side and yesterday they didn’t. They were across that line. I think it’s a great course to have a U.S. Open. They just set it up poorly sometimes.”
The reality is that the USGA cannot bring Shinnecock to the edge without going over it. It’s almost impossible to do given the weather on the eastern end of Long Island and the fact that the course is more than 100 years old, with a set of severely sloping greens that were not designed for modern green speeds.
Put too much water on the putting surfaces and you’re going to see a bunch of 64s and 65s. Let them dry out in the sun and wind and players will be trying not to three-putt from 10 feet. Adapting to changing conditions is one of the challenges of the U.S. Open, but it shouldn’t become farcical.
“If the green speed goes up, the difficulty of putting goes up hyperbolically,” said short-game expert Dave Pelz. “If it’s twice as fast, it’s not twice as hard. If it’s twice as fast, it’s impossible.”
Some believe Mickelson was making a point, wrong-headed though it was, when frustration got the best of him and he jogged after his ball on the 13th green and swiped at it while it was still moving, resulting in a two-stroke penalty and a raging debate about what’s fair and foul in the gentlemanly game.
It’s nice to have gizmos that measure the firmness of the turf and moisture in the soil, but sometimes common sense must prevail.
“There’s so many pin placements out there but they choose some that, as players, we don’t even ever see in our minds,” Stricker said. “You’re like, ‘It can’t be there’ and sure as heck, it’s there.”
The bottom line is that if the USGA can’t accept a winning score of 12-under par, then Shinnecock is always going to present a massive headache.
The U.S. Open is scheduled to return in 2026. Will the folks in Far Hills, N.J., finally have figured out this place by then? Don’t hold your breath.