News & Opinion

Are over-par winning scores a black mark on U.S. Open?

Ernie Els U.S. Open
To be a U.S. Open champion, which Ernie Els has done twice, a winning golfer must shrug off bogeys.

Sure, our national championship should pose a stern test, but how tough is too tough? Hawk & Purk square off as Winged Foot looms

Hawk & Purk Podcast Hero Article

Longtime golf journalists John Hawkins and Mike Purkey, who co-host the weekly Hawk & Purk podcast on MorningRead.com, also discuss and debate the game’s hottest issues in this weekly commentary.

Do winning scores over par at the U.S. Open make the tournament more or less enjoyable to watch?

Hawk’s take: It’s not the extreme difficulty that is so irksome, but the conscientious decision to push course setups over the edge, which leads to silly golf and a lot of complaints from the competitors themselves. Those elements detract from the overall credibility of the event, quite frankly, and can turn the viewing experience into an exercise in tedium.

The USGA has its reasons for manufacturing toughness. Fairness is in the eye of the beholder, however, and there have been far too many times over the years when that invisible line has been crossed. When nobody can play the golf course, excellence is neutralized. The top players find their abilities compromised by the collective mindset of a bunch of guys in blue blazers, and that shouldn’t be what our national championship is all about.

Two weeks ago in Chicago, the PGA Tour successfully balanced hard and fair with penal rough and firm greens, a combination that never fails to test the world’s best when done with a certain amount of moderation. Dustin Johnson and eventual winner Jon Rahm, who were first and second, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking at the time, met in a playoff at 4 under par. We were treated to a spectacular finish after a grueling (but not gruesome) display at Olympia Fields, which happened to yield a winning score of 8 under when it last hosted a U.S. Open, in 2003.

Strenuous is one thing, but stupid is another. The harder you push the envelope when it comes to course conditions at a major championship, the more likely you are to get pushed right back.

Purk’s take: Some think that people watch NASCAR waiting for the wrecks. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Stock-car-racing fans watch to see who can drive upwards of 200 mph and avoid wrecks. While that happens nearly every week on the NASCAR circuit, in professional golf, we usually see it once a year.

That would be the U.S. Open. From early reconnaissance by some of the competitors, Winged Foot is certain to be its brutish self, and the winning score is likely to be over par. The question becomes: Is it entertaining to watch the game’s top players suffer and struggle?

Birdies are entertaining. Hard pars are empathetic. Shooting 20 under or lower at a garden-variety PGA Tour event leads us to say, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s that easy.” Chopping out of rough, punching out of trees, hitting into and putting on impossibly firm, fast, sloping greens leads us to say, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s that hard.”

At the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where the winning score was 7 over par, Sandy Tatum was the chairman of the USGA Competition Committee. Tatum, who died in June at age 96, addressed the moaning of the players.

"We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world," Tatum said. "We're simply trying to identify who they are."

We certainly don’t need a U.S. Open every week. But once a year is just right.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.