It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the United States Open turned into a wimp.
Maybe it began in 2008 when the U.S. Golf Association tried out a drivable par 4 at Torrey Pines. Can you imagine former USGA warlords such as P.J. Boatwright or Joe Dey doing that? Never.
Maybe it happened in 2011, when Congressional’s ample fairways were softened by rain and Rory McIlroy shot 268, 16 under par, and set the Open’s all-time scoring record. Since then, we have seen mostly kinder and gentler Opens, not counting Oakmont in 2016, when the greens were so fast – too fast – that it sparked a controversy and eventually led to the USGA’s changing the rule regarding a ball that moves during play.
Last year, Erin Hills featured wide fairways softened by rain, and it was a dart-fest won by Brooks Koepka at 16 under. It didn’t look or feel anything like a traditional U.S. Open.
This week should be different when the Open returns to Shinnecock Hills, site of the second Open, in 1896, and the revered home of golf in the U.S. The expectation is for a more traditional, more sadistic Open.
A trio of Golf Channel analysts – Brandel Chamblee, David Duval and Justin Leonard – got together last week to share their thoughts. Duval and Leonard are former British Open champions, while Chamblee is a former PGA Tour winner and golf historian. All are very passionate on the subject of our National Open.
“The challenge for the USGA is to try to reclaim the identity of the US Open,” said Duval, the 2001 British Open champion. “When you think of past US Opens, you think high rough, severe penalties for driving the ball poorly, severe penalties for missing the greens, long rough and the difficulty of pitching out of that long grass around the greens to hard, fast, sloping surfaces. That’s gone awry the last number of years with graduated rough. I hope they have nice tight fairways and penal rough. I’m excited to see a proper U.S. Open again.”
Chamblee touted the Open’s once-familiar role of not being a fun tournament. He unearthed these statistics: The last round of the 2004 Open at Shinnecock was the first Open round during which no player shot under par since 1963. There were 45 scores of 80 or higher in the 1986 opening round, also at Shinnecock, and that total was higher than the 1974 Open at Winged Foot, which was the subject of a book, “The Massacre at Winged Foot.”
“You want the players complaining,” Chamblee said. “You want them yelling and pulling their hair out. The last thing you should do, if you’re the USGA, is listen to the players. It’s akin to asking your students what they want to be tested on. It’s their job to answer the questions; it’s your job to decide what to test them on.
“If there’s one thing I disagree with the USGA on, it’s that they’ve changed the concept of testing players through the bag. They’re letting players get away with inaccurate drives off the tee. As far as these guys hit it, they should stretch the golf course out and make sure players get long irons and mid-irons in their hands on par 4s, which is quite a bit different from what they face every other week.”
The USGA’s recent use of graduated rough – where the rough is shorter nearer the fairway and progressively deeper the farther a player strays from the fairway – has reduced the emphasis on accuracy off the tee.
“Erin Hills played 7,700 yards, and they had tees for 8,000 yards,” Leonard said. “That’s not the answer. You don’t have to force players to hit driver. In my mind, that takes any kind of strategy or mental battle out of play. Last year, the fairways were wide, there wasn’t much penalty for missing drives and the fairways were soft. There was no strategy. You hit driver as hard as you could.
“At Shinnecock, the severity of the rough hopefully will be enough that it’ll create doubt in the player’s mind. That’s what the U.S. Open is all about. You need the mental discipline to understand when to take on a flag or when you need to hit a pitching wedge 20 feet right or left and do the right things when it’s not always the obvious choice. That kind of strategy comes into play off the tee at Shinnecock, especially when you have long rough. It’ll be interesting to see the comments from players used to the modern game, which is take driver and just swing harder and hit it over everything. I’m looking forward to that not being the best option available next week.”
Maybe the Open pendulum swung toward more-playable setups due to television. Maybe it’s this simple: viewers prefer birdies and eagles to pitch-out shots and bogeys.
Of course, good drama is good drama, regardless of score. Jordan Spieth proved that last year at Royal Birkdale when he hit an errant drive, took a penalty drop on the practice ground, salvaged a bogey and went on to win the British Open. Nobody complained about Birkdale being too easy or giving up the lowest score in major-championship history, a 62, to Branden Grace or a 63 to Haotong Li.
You can’t slow down today’s players by adding distance. They’re all long hitters. Firm greens and wind are the main ingredients to making a course scoring resistant. The only other recourse is fairway width and length of the rough.
Said Leonard, “It’ll be interesting to see these modern players make the adjustments to play a stern U.S. Open test on a course that has stood the test of time.”
Asked what viewers can expect this week, Chamblee said he has heard that Shinnecock will play about 500 yards longer than it did in 2004 – thus, about 7,500 yards (the USGA lists the official yardage at 7,440) – with greens that are 30 percent larger and fairways that are widened but flanked by nastier-than-usual rough.
“In 1986 and ’95, the greens were very hard to hit,” Chamblee said. “Corey Pavin won there in ’95 hitting less than half the greens. The weather forecast looks pretty good, so the course should play firm and fast. It’ll be gritty, scrambling, hard-nosed golf. That’s the way I imagine it, more along the lines of a traditional U.S. Open.”
If he’s right, maybe this week the U.S. Open will get its mojo back.