SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – An iconic golf course, by its very definition, has stood the test of time. It doesn’t need radical change or to be tricked up to host any tournament. Such a course would be ready at any time, with its architectural style and grace, to hold a U.S. Open.
Only a few courses in the country hold such character that, at a moment’s notice, they could pinch hit under demanding circumstances.
Oakmont, Winged Foot, Merion, The Country Club and Shinnecock Hills compose such an exclusive club.
Which makes me wonder how a course setup ever could go wrong when one of the iconic American layouts meets the U.S. Golf Association.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened in 2004, when one of the USGA’s five founding-member clubs was subjected to ridicule by a group more interested in crossing the line than toeing it.
By all accounts, that mid-June week in 2004 should have been a celebration of golf. What occurred over those four days was more like a train wreck.
“It turned into a fiasco pretty early,” Scott Verplank said. “By the time you made it to the putting green, it was horror stories left and right. It was out of control.”
Verplank stood tied for 19th going into the final round, but a 13-over 83 dropped him to a T-40 finish. He was another casualty of a faulty course setup that produced 28 rounds in the 80s on Sunday. Nobody broke par that day.
Many of the 66 players who made the cut said the USGA lost control of the course and that it was all avoidable.
“They were playing catch-up,” said Jerry Kelly, who shot a final-round 81. “It's one of those many times – and you can put those in capital letters – that they decided that difficulty was more important than integrity of the golf course.”
At the 178-yard par-3 seventh, named Redan for how the green slopes away from the tee, the distance was relatively benign for world-class golfers. With a baked green, No. 7 emerged as ground zero for criticism.
After watching the first group of Kevin Stadler and J.J. Henry record triple-bogey 6s, USGA officials decided that they had gone too far and syringed the putting surface.
For Henry and Stadler, the seventh hole played more like hockey than golf, as the ball ricocheted off the green like a puck caromed off the boards.
“We walked off there with 6 and really didn't hit a bad shot,” Henry said. “We were pouring bottles of water on the putting green before we teed off, just to see what happened, and the water wouldn't drain. It would just go all the way down to the trash can – just roll down there.”
Neither Henry, who would shoot 76 that day, nor Stadler, who would post an 85, stood much of a chance as the first group off. The inherent unfairness, which was apparent as the water hoses came out after they played the hole, stuck with Henry.
“Needless to say, when I walked out of that scoring trailer on 18, I was biting my tongue not to say anything because they started watering greens after we went through there,” Henry said. “But it was ridiculous, the fact that we were kind of the guinea pigs, where we're like, Guys, we have a serious problem here. We're teeing off on the eighth hole, and they're back there watering the green.
“Long story short, I'm already done by the time [eventual winner Retief] Goosen tees off. I happened to be in the locker room or whatever, watching on TV, and he's got the exact same putt, and he putts it up to like this [within a foot or so].”
Corey Pavin, who won the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, tied for 17th in 2004 after a final-round 79 marred by a double bogey at No. 7. He agreed that the USGA went over the top.
“That's the one thing about the U.S. Open,” Pavin said. “Once in a while, they try to bring it right to the edge, and every once in a while, you're going to make a mistake and cross the line, and unfortunately it happened there.”
Is taking it to the edge really necessary for the total golf examination that the USGA claims is the purpose of the U.S. Open?
According to Mike Davis, who helped fellow USGA official Walter Driver set up the front nine for the final round, well-executed shots were not being rewarded and, in some cases, even penalized.
“I would just say that it was 14 years ago,” said Davis, who became the USGA’s executive director in 2016. “It was a different time; it was different people, and we as an organization, we learned from it. When you set up a U.S. Open, it is golf's ultimate test. It's probably set up closer to the edge than any other event in golf, and I think that the difference then versus now is we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands. And frankly, ladies and gentlemen, what really happened then was just a lack of water. There just wasn't enough water put in, and the plant, essentially the grass itself kind of went dormant. There wasn't enough friction on the greens.”
Oddly, Driver mentioned the lack of water in 2004 when discussing the setup, but he added that excessive rolling of the green might have been the culprit.
“Actually, I'm not sure that's true,” Driver said of watering the night before. “You need to talk to an agronomist. But I was told that there is a difference in the absorption rate on the greens that in order to have changed the greens last night, we would have had to water for about three or four hours, and it would change dramatically the character of the entire golf course in a way that we didn't anticipate that we would need to do that. We're not going to start watering at 11 o'clock at night based on how much Andy North's hair is blowing, frankly.”
So instead of using the Andy North hair-measurement meter, the USGA decided to go the other way: little watering and then blame a staffer for excessive rolling of the green.
No one was convinced on that Sunday in 2004 of the USGA’s explanation, and many remain leery today that the USGA will get it right this week.
Phil Mickelson, the runner-up to Goosen in 2004, said of No. 7: “I think it's a great hole until the USGA gets ahold of it. I'm concerned every time they get ahold of it.”
So here we are, preparing for the U.S. Open on an iconic course that is revered in the golf community, but it’s a crapshoot whether the USGA has the right tools, can sufficiently analyze the data and possesses the wherewithal not to go over the top.
“I know that their basis was, once somebody four- or five-putted, they watered the green,” Mickelson said of his experience in 2004. “And so, it was really important that the group in front of you four- or five-putted, and then you had a chance.”
With history as the greatest teacher, the USGA hopefully has learned a valuable lesson. We won’t know until later this week.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli