News & Opinion

Pebble Beach greets evolving U.S. Open

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – The U.S. Open has received plenty of criticism in recent years, as you’re no doubt aware. Yes, sir. When it comes to second guesses, NHL officials got nuthin’ on the USGA. In fact, produce a magazine article and throw some anonymity around and you might even get a bunch of players to talk about a boycott. 

But here’s the thing about setting up major-championship golf events: It is both by-and-because-of nature a flawed proposition. The U.S. Open Championship is not a smart phone app or a software program, coded to run the same every time. It is not Aunt Jemima pancakes, recipe on the box. 

The USGA’s John Bodenhamer oversees the setup of Pebble Beach for this week’s U.S. Open.

The USGA’s John Bodenhamer oversees the setup of Pebble Beach for this week’s U.S. Open.

Major-championship golf is a massive undertaking, constructed, organized and prepared by human beings. Over the many years the championship and the association have been around, the identities and personalities of those humans have changed, as have philosophies and approaches.

And as Salvador Dali once said to a fellow member of our species, there should be “no fear of perfection. You’ll never reach it.”

We’re talking about a national championship open to all comers, conducted in different settings each year, environs with unique agronomic, topographic and climatic values. A championship, mind you, that requires the specs more than a year in advance. 

Again, this is not PlayStation or Xbox. This is not an enclosed stadium or controlled environment. This is a beast with 18 tentacles and more than 7,000 yards of mass, exposed to the elements and expected to behave.

So, yes, shockingly, there have been occasional controversies, issues that have ticked off players – specifically those not coping well. Decisions have gone awry, unexpected developments have torpedoed intentions. Awkward situations have resulted, to be sure. But questioning the integrity of the effort is the stuff of which bellyachers are made.

Could planners foresee too much rain at Congressional in 2011? Could they anticipate that a wind-swept course at Erin Hills would have no wind in 2017? Could they predict the same Shinnecock course that spilled birdies on a Saturday morning last year would blow-dry bogeys in the afternoon? Should they be roasted for going to the Pacific Northwest or trying the Midwest? C’mon. 

As Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president and Pebble Beach patriarch, perfectly articulated when his governing comrades took hits for the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974: “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify who they are.”

It’s not a math equation. It’s an adventure, a challenge for players and administrators alike. Things have changed over the years, innovations have been embraced, ideas have been explored. The new Yankee Stadium is not exactly like the old Yankee Stadium, for better and worse. The Augusta National that was played in April was not your father’s Augusta National.  

When things are different, they are not necessarily wrong. They’re different.

''The Open has changed,'' Tiger Woods said recently. ''I thought it was just narrow fairways – hit it in the fairway or hack out, move on. Now there's chipping areas around the greens. There's less rough, graduated rough. They try to make the Open strategically different. I just like it when there's high rough and narrow fairways and, Go get it, boys.''

Fair enough. The USGA is not deaf or blind to it all. The U.S. Open is not supposed to be like other championships, but it is supposed to be the best it can be.

''It's not lost on us, all that's been said and written,'' said John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships. ''It's incumbent upon us to have a great U.S. Open – not just this year, the next several years.’’

And so, this is the U.S. Open … and what have you done … another year over … and a new one just begun.

Bodenhamer succeeds Mike Davis at the wheel and brings his inaugural version to an iconic venue, where Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods have been crowned, where unpredictability is part and parcel, where authenticity is restored in critical areas, where the fairways are tight and “graduated rough” is minimal.

If you have a problem with this U.S. Open, you will have only Pebble Beach to kick around.

Happy U.S. Open; war is over.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, and The Memorial magazine. Email:; Twitter: @WWDOD