As U.S. Opens go, the 118th gathering proved to be quite the character. From Tiger Woods’ opening triple bogey to Phil Mickelson’s almost comical disregard for the rules, from Dustin Johnson’s unforeseeable third-round meltdown to the extra-crispy golf course, from the USGA’s admission that it mismanaged the grounds to its crowning a repeat champion for the first time in almost three decades, this baby was dadgum near Dead Solid Perfect.
The great Dan Jenkins would have shot the dirt off this one. Our national championship, much like the country which hosts it, is a mess at times and a masterpiece at others. It defies logic and begs to differ. Controversy invites intrigue. Intrigue generates buzz.
For all the sniping and grousing over how the USGA “lost the golf course” Saturday afternoon, it was a bit of an overreaction and not exactly breaking news. Johnson didn’t shoot a front-nine 41 and squander a four-stroke lead because the greens turned into roulette wheels. Chief bluecoat Mike Davis took the blame for Shinnecock Hills’ sadistic streak, saying he and his setup team underestimated the breeze, which is a tournament director’s version of the dog ate my homework.
Still, all it did was turn Sunday into a 10- or 12-horse race – and produce one of the craziest final pairings in modern history. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau completed their third rounds almost an hour before the leaders teed off. Both shot 66 before the wind and sun took Shinnecock to the edge, and thus, both were exquisitely rewarded for playing mediocre golf the first two days.
Again, you have to look at the tournament as a whole. Brooks Koepka defended his title at 1 over par, which is barely north of the target score for a U.S. Open champion (even par) and yet another reminder that Sunday is the day they hand out the trophy. Koepka drove his ball into opportune positions, made several huge putts and played the final round in 2 under, but five others who finished in the top 10 also broke par (scores).
It wasn’t the most dramatic U.S. Open ever contested, but it was certainly one of the most interesting we’ve seen in recent years. We’re talking about a championship with a clearly defined mission: to provide the ultimate test for the world’s finest golfers. Errors in judgment on matters such as course setup come with the territory, and Davis should be pardoned for what was his first real mistake since taking over setup duties in 2006.
That won’t stop the delusionists from ripping the USGA. Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, who has been missing the point for decades, wrote, “the glorious reputation of Shinnecock Hills will get dinged in the process.” Boz followed up with this beauty: “These links have tortured the best in the world, especially on and around the greens, undermining efforts by too much blind, dumb luck.”
Torture? Dumb luck? Boswell hadn’t reached the edge of the cliff just yet. “The USGA has decided it hates trees,” he added, referring to the removal of 500 at Shinnecock in 2014. Opinions – even preposterous ones – are fine, but a misrepresentation of the facts is inexcusable. The club’s membership decided to cut down the trees in an effort to restore William Flynn’s 1931 redesign. Oakmont and several other U.S. Open sites have taken similar action. To suggest that the bluecoats ordered such a mandate is a shot below the belt.
Many people find overly difficult golf to be exceedingly dull, and when things go awry, journalists tend to grab the machete and start looking for heads. That, too, comes with the territory, but a hard-fought victory at 1 over isn’t much different from a 1-0 pitcher’s duel in baseball or a 10-7 football game dominated by defense. What we saw at Shinnecock was a struggle for perhaps the game’s biggest prize, plagued slightly by a flaw that ultimately had little effect on the final outcome.
U.S. Opens should be measured by the number of memories it produces. The 118th heads into the history book with a pretty fat scrapbook.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: John@HawkGolf.biz