News & Opinion

Caution ahead: USGA’s return to Shinnecock

First of two parts

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – In 240 days, the USGA is going to tee it up at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, a course synonymous with Titanic, Hindenburg and the Great Chicago Fire as monumental disasters in world history.

Of course, no one died at Shinnecock on that Sunday, June 20, 2004, but the world as the USGA knew it would be changed forever. So, too, would the manner in which the organization contested its U.S. Opens.

At the biggest self-inflicted blunder in major-championship golf, Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, N.Y., was set up in a way that made it inherently unplayable. Twenty-eight of the 66 players who made the cut did not break 80 in the final round. The scoring average was 78.727, nearly nine shots higher than par, and complaints piled up like bogeys.

No one had bigger gripes than Kevin Stadler and J.J. Henry. Stadler was playing in his first Open and paired with Henry in the 9:10 a.m. tee time, the first of the day.

When they reached the par-3 seventh hole, a 189-yarder with a right-to-left green that slopes away from the golfer and is named Redan, after the iconic 15th at North Berwick in Scotland, the full might of the USGA’s incompetence and Shinnecock Hills fell on them. Both recorded triple-bogey 6s.

The hole clearly was unplayable: a rock-hard putting surface that was growing harder as a warm, northerly wind dried the green, and 64 more players still needed to play the hole.

“I turned on my television this morning and saw what was going on and realized that it was going to be a little bit on the comic side today,” said Jeff Maggert, who was playing in one of the last groups on Sunday and ultimately finished third, five strokes behind winner Retief Goosen. “I knew you'd have to play almost a perfect round of golf to really get out there and play without any bogeys, and I felt like you're going to make some bogeys today and you're going to get some really stupid bounces with the golf ball.”

Walter Driver, who was vice president of the USGA and chairman of the championship committee, talked about having to syringe greens at times, providing an advantage to some versus others and how for three days, the USGA basically got the setup right.  

“This is a very difficult wind,” Driver, who would serve as USGA president in 2006-07, said during the final round as criticism mounted. “It did dry out. It became very difficult, but we start setting courses up for championships four and five years in advance, and you cannot change an Open course setup in 12 hours. It's not possible. So, we went from having lots of compliments for what we did for three days, and then the wind blew harder and in a different direction than we anticipated, and you simply can't go redo the greens in 12 hours.”

On a recent trip to Shinnecock, Jeff Hall, the USGA’s managing director of rules and open championships who was on the grounds for the 2004 Open but not responsible for setup, said the course played as the USGA wanted for three days. Of course, if the Open were a three-day event, Phil Mickelson, the 2004 runner-up, would have at least two U.S. Open victories. Major-championship golf spans four days, not three – unless you’re part of the LPGA, and then it’s negotiable.

All comedy aside, that Sunday in 2004 lives with the USGA and will not be exorcised until a successful Open plays out at Shinnecock.

Coming Tuesday: What will the USGA, with Hall and Mike Davis, the executive director and chief executive officer, now in charge, do with Shinnecock to ensure that there is no repeat of 2004 when the U.S. Open returns June 14-17?

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli