The death of the U.S. Open occurred in the most unlikely of places: on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean under a sky so clear, even heaven seemed visible. Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate on one leg in double overtime. At a municipal course. On a Monday, no less.
In the 10 years since, our national championship has endured a prolonged stretch of bad luck, poor venue selections and outrageous scoring. Brooks Koepka won last year’s affair at 16 under. Even par used to win this tournament roughly half the time – emphasis on roughly. For all the PGA Tour events at which birdies rule, the U.S. Open had a distinct and somewhat divisive identity.
Love it or hate it, you knew what you were getting into.
By no means does this week’s return to Shinnecock Hills guarantee a bloodletting or a competitive thriller, but it does spark the notion that the USGA should strongly consider a course rota similar to that of the British Open. Stop handing out major championships to places with lots of room for parking and merchandise tents. Stop trying to combat the 350-yard drive by leaning toward untested designs long on length and short on common sense.
It’s the U.S. Open, for crying out loud, the George S. Patton of golf tournaments. Hard to the edge of unfair, which is a premise best employed at the game’s time-proven classics. Shinnecock would be a lock, as would Pebble Beach and Oakmont. Fill in the blanks from there, with strong consideration given to Pinehurst and somewhere in the Midwest. Medinah? Hazeltine? Both are sturdy and stationed in two of the heartland’s largest markets.
Of course, great venues do not promise great results, and one could argue that lightly regarded Torrey Pines produced a U.S. Open for the ages. The motor behind a rota is simple: a tournament of such importance should be contested on golf’s grandest stages. Our national championship is no place for an off-Broadway production, and though U.S. Golf Association boss Mike Davis has done a fine job of restoring a sense of balance to the course-setup process, the event basically has lost its character during his tenure.
Davis is hardly to blame for the rain that battered Bethpage (2009) and made a soggy, defenseless mess of Congressional (2011), where Rory McIlroy, at 16 under, shaved four strokes off the U.S. Open scoring record. Davis isn’t the reason Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson blew marvelous chances to win at Pebble in 2010, which dissolved into one of the most forgettable finishes ever: Graeme McDowell over Gregory Havret.
Chambers Bay (2015) was a bad venue, Merion (2013) a bit of a disappointment. Olympic (2012) has become a place where U.S. Open dreams go to die, from Arnold Palmer to Tom Lehman to Jim Furyk. Erin Hills (2017) did little to inspire a return trip, and after a brilliant debut in 1999, Pinehurst has produced a couple of duds.
After the rarely-a-dull-moment 1990s and a strong start to the millennium, we’ve hit a cold patch. Davis lacks the sadistic streak of his predecessor, Tom Meeks, who was an expert at ridiculous pin placements and burning out greens. His most notable gaffe came on the par-3 seventh at Shinnecock in 2004. When Pinehurst’s domed putting surfaces almost became unplayable a year later, Meeks quietly left his position as the USGA’s director of masochism.
For all his errors in judgment, Meeks kept things lively. What’s a U.S. Open without an overflowing complaint box?
“It’s been 14 years, and it’s a different time with different people,” Davis said last month of the Shinnecock debacle. “Frankly, what basically happened then was a lack of water. We probably made a bogey last time, maybe a double bogey.”
A rota makes sense for several reasons, but the USGA has a business to run. Selling lots of T-shirts and ballcaps in Tacoma creates a stronger revenue stream, which clears the conscience among those bluecoats who believe the tournament has been compromised in recent years. There are just a handful of ballparks truly worthy of hosting a major championship, and some of them don’t want to deal with the hassle.
There is just one U.S. Open, however. It’s still the most important tournament on the schedule, if not the most exciting, a battle of attrition that measures volition. A five-star feast should be consumed with five-star cutlery. Never mind if the main course is a bit overcooked.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: John@HawkGolf.biz