News & Opinion

We won’t make that mistake again, USGA vows

Second of two parts

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – New leadership should go a long way toward making the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills a success.

The last time the Open visited this Long Island links course, in 2004, plenty of things went wrong for the U.S. Golf Association, notably the virtually unplayable condition of the green at the par-3 seventh hole (“Caution ahead: USGA’s return to Shinnecock,” Oct. 16, http://bit.ly/2yrDDKQ).

But a new corps of decision makers will be responsible for what unfolds in June when Shinnecock plays host to its fifth U.S. Open. Superintendent Jon Jennings came to Shinnecock in 2012 from Chicago Golf Club. Jeff Hall oversees course setup for the USGA. Design partners Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made substantial changes to restore Shinnecock closer to William Flynn’s original 1931 design. 

Because of those four men, the 118th U.S. Open has the best chance of exorcising the demons that have haunted the USGA.

It may sound melodramatic, but the USGA had to conduct a thorough review of its methods and procedures after 2004. The result: a document on course-setup principles that is used as a guide for U.S. Opens.

Even a year after Shinnecock, during the USGA’s news conference at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort before the 2005 U.S. Open, the topic of Shinnecock and the seventh green dominated the discussion. In the ensuing years, any perceived USGA setup miscue prompts mention of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.

But the missteps of 2004 will not be repeated, said Hall, who cites modern information and technology as key tools.

“Water management, the improved weather forecasting that we now have at our fingertips with our onsite meteorologist; there's just a lot more data,” he said. “We can make better decisions because we're better informed.”

Jennings will be called upon to enact the USGA’s program months in advance. That was made clear with the Coore/Crenshaw changes, which returned the fairway widths to the expansive Flynn design.

As an example, the restoration of the 18th hole expanded the fairway to 52-54 yards wide; for the 2004 U.S. Open, the fairway was 32 yards across.

The USGA and the club agreed that the width was too wide at 52 yards, but didn’t want to revert to the ’04 width of 32, so the 18th was narrowed to 40 yards.

The narrowing occurred in mid-September across the golf course, with Jennings and his crew taking sod from Shinnecock’s par-3 course and other grass from a sod farm to make the changes in less than a month.

“Just trying to strike that balance, make sure that accuracy remains a part of that test of golf that we're after and yet also being true to the strategy and the genius that Flynn built into the golf course,” Hall said. “Just trying to find that balance where we’re preserving what should be preserved.” 

Hall has followed the philosophy that Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and chief executive officer, incorporated when he took over the championship setup after Shinnecock: communicate with all of the responsible parties.

In hindsight, those involved in the 2004 debacle at Shinnecock pointed to a lack of communication or miscommunication as the prime reason for Sunday’s problems. Since then, communication has been at the forefront of Hall’s approach for the Open setup. 

Daily meetings with the principals cover green speeds, water management, mowing heights and other particulars that make the difference in the course setup.

“We usually start those kind of meetings Wednesday, Thursday of advance week,” said Hall, noting the typical week before the tournament. “Obviously, we're in a lot of discussion leading up to it, but there's just an alignment that there's no miscommunication in that regard. We know what we're going to do, how we're going to do it, when it's going to happen, and we all feel good about that plan walking out the door from that meeting room. So that makes a big difference.”

Putting on the seventh green still will be difficult. In fact, the traditional Stimpmeter that measures green speed can’t be used on No. 7 because of the green’s undulation. A modified Stimpmeter will measure green speeds, and another tool, designed by the UGSA, will determine the hardness of the green.

In returning to a familiar venue that has hosted the 1896, 1986, 1995 and 2004 Opens, the USGA feels confident with the knowledge that it has acquired from those events. The USGA claims that it will be ready for anything, even the sort of warm, dry wind from the north that led to so many problems 13 years ago.

“The science that we employ around it now, the communication that we have established with the clubs – not just in advance but during the week of – it's just at a different level,” Hall said. “Our goal is to showcase this venue, not create problems for it. So, we're in a very different place.” 

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