News & Opinion

It’s time for USGA to get it right with U.S. Open

In hindsight, it was reminiscent of an over-the-top cop series from days gone by, with Mike Davis playing the role of “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

The newly anointed executive director of the U.S. Golf Association was applauded as savior and hero on the 18th green at the U.S. Open at The Olympic Club five years ago when he grabbed an obnoxious, squawking protester who had hijacked the televised awards ceremony, then heaved the guy into a greenside bunker. San Francisco’s finest quickly converged.

Unfortunately, like the loopy interloper, the trajectory of the USGA seemingly has plunged headfirst, if not sideways, since.

In fact, after a series of awkward and embarrassing episodes at the men’s and women’s Opens last summer were added to the organization’s growing list of high-profile gaffes, the USGA’s public perception has reached an all-time low ebb.

“Their good intentions aside,” former world No. 1 Adam Scott said, “that tournament is far too important for those things to keep happening.”

Not surprisingly, as the men’s Open heads this week to first-time venue Erin Hills outside Milwaukee, millions of eyes will be riveted not only on the players, but the organization that can’t seem to shoot straight. More than at any point in recent years, many believe the USGA badly needs to pull off a blunder-free tournament, both for the sake of its declining credibility and for the overall state of the sport.

Although, that might not be enough to repair the damage at this point.

“I don't know if doing one thing right is going to fix that,” Phil Mickelson said with a smirk.

At a time in which the organization is eliciting deafening levels of catcalls and criticism, Erin Hills represents another significant risk. The course, located on former cattle ranchland carved centuries ago by retreating glaciers, stretches to 8,000 yards from the back tees. Wisconsin native Steve Stricker recalled playing nine holes at Erin Hills from the back tees, and hitting four hybrids or woods into greens for his approach shots. The course, which opened in 2006, is showroom new compared with traditional venues such as Oakmont or Winged Foot, and has never staged a professional event of note, much less weathered Open-sized logistical issues.

What could possibly go wrong, right?

Based on the past two of summers, at minimum, we’ll find out soon enough. Scott, one of the most level-headed superstars in golf, said the bungling by USGA officials and their overseas peers at the R&A has cast a cloud over the sport, especially as it relates to rules issues, which badly tainted the final hours of the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens last summer.

“Those two organizations can sense their relevance dwindling,” Scott said.

Likewise, plenty still recall the multiple missteps two years ago at Chambers Bay, another first-time Open venue that Davis was instrumental in recommending. Players ripped the parched, bumpy greens, and several criticized Davis’ decision to change the par on the 18th on alternate days. Former world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, who ironically would win the title on that very hole after Dustin Johnson’s three-putt from 12 feet, characterized it as “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played.”

“Chambers Bay was a disaster, really,” said 2013 Open champion Justin Rose. “Those greens were unacceptable for an event like the U.S. Open.”

Genial, articulate and the antithesis of the typical USGA stuffed shirt, Davis no longer receives the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong. It has happened too many times. Exacerbating the rules-related gaffes last summer, USGA president Diana Murphy also fumbled the awards ceremonies at the men’s and women’s tournaments, misidentifying winner Brittany Lang not once, but twice, at the latter. Nonetheless, Murphy was elected to a second term for 2017.

For those with the long view, this is no sad surprise. The USGA caused angst and outrage with an improper ruling awarded to eventual winner Ernie Els in 1994 at Oakmont, a poor hole location on the 18th green at Olympic in 1998, an unusually punitive setup during inclement weather at Bethpage Black in 2002 and fried greens at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, to name a memorable few.

Official explanations often came across as haughty, condescending or worse. For a governing body representing much of North America, arrogance and incompetence are a bad hybrid.

In fairness, there have been successes along the way. Three years ago, the USGA orchestrated the first Open double-header in history, staging the men’s and women’s events in consecutive weeks at the same venue, Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort’s No. 2 Course. Graduated rough, used often, has been a terrific development in the USGA’s setup arsenal.

That said, Erin Hills will represent another referendum on Davis’ tenure, which started so memorably in San Francisco. For the second time in three years, an unproven venue will serve as perhaps the game’s biggest stage.

“I give them credit for trying to do things differently and not going with the status quo, but it’s always a roll of the dice,” said Rose, who won the Open at heralded Merion. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Personally, I like the traditional tracks. That’s where the history is.

“I haven’t really heard a ton of awesome things about Erin Hills, but I am looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes.”

Even the game’s Hall of Fame, patriarchal figures are wondering why the game’s historic venues no longer are in vogue. New courses offer not a sniff of history or context.

“I think the USGA has gotten away from their identity with what they’re doing,” Jack Nicklaus said. “I happened to like the U.S. Open the way it was.

“I thought that the era that I played in, the golf courses were fantastic. They’re getting away from that. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. It’s just different.”

It’s certainly risky. Hopefully, at the American national championship, the caretakers at the USGA won’t pencil in another mustache on the Mona Lisa.

“Nothing takes away from the stature of the tournament from our point of view, no matter what has happened the last few years,” Rose said. “It doesn’t make it less important. It’s one of the greatest tournaments in the world.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling