JOHN MCHENRY: Why does US Open still play the long game?

Ahead of the US Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin this week, the United States Golf Association (USGA) is rightfully nervous. 

Historically regarded as the toughest test of all the major championships, many of the leading lights in the game are now openly critical of the USGA’s running of the event.

There have been self- inflicted controversies such as the selection of the poorly conditioned Chambers Bay in 2015 and the ridiculous final round farce last year at Oakmont which saw Dustin Johnson (as well as the entire audience watching the event) take on the final seven holes not knowing whether he would be assessed a one-shot penalty or not.

The burden of responsibility for the successful running of the US Open falls on the shoulders of the USGA’s Mike Davis and while he can take great credit for successful tournaments in Pinehurst and Merion in recent years, such is the current unrest that further disappointment or controversy this week may just cost him his job.

The US Open is famed for its narrow fairways, its rock hard greens and its uncompromising rough and while the barometer for the USGA’s set-up is still a level-par winning score, more and more the course selection and the playability of those same courses are being questioned by the leading players.

At the top of their list of complaints is the fact again there is too much of a premium being put on length — at 7,741 yards, Erin Hills is the longest course in US Open history — but while the extra length is somewhat offset by wider-than-usual fairways and no rough around the greens, the USGA still seems to be missing the point.

As one of only two legislative bodies worldwide, they are presenting a challenge to the players their global audience of fair-to- average golfers simply cannot appreciate. 

Why are they always loading the odds to favour long hitters on long golf courses when most of the famous golf courses in the world provide more drama and entertainment? 

The courses with the greatest shot values — like the risk-reward back nine holes at Augusta — have also deepened the pool of potential winners.

So why does the USGA play the long game? Because the best players are also the most powerful hitters and they want the best players’ names on the trophy.

In the age of massive advances in technology and fitness, it is simply not good enough that the legislators in the game lie down and allow big brands to dictate the pace, while the game continues to struggle at grassroots level. 

They should be bolder and look at how other ‘arena’ sports have maintained and enhanced their integrity without compromising advances in technology or the fitness of their athletes.

Take, for example, professional tennis. It has maintained the dimensions of courts worldwide by introducing faster or slower tennis balls for different playing surfaces. By doing so, their audience, who play on the same courts, can more easily relate to the game while really appreciating the skill levels of the professional players.

This week’s US Open also represents a significant “changing of the guard” in that it will be the first US Open in 25 years that doesn’t have the names Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson among its starters. 

With 122 PGA wins, including 19 major championships, between them, their level of focus, the ability to rewrite the script and most especially their hunger will be sorely missed this week.

This week the course heavily favours length, accuracy and a good short game so it is hard to see past the likes of the competitively sharp Dustin Johnson and more particularly Jason Day. 

From a European perspective, I fancy Justin Rose and Stenson but it is very hard to have much hope for Rory McIlroy this week.

On a good week, he will be competitive regardless of form but until such time as he shows the necessary hunger to get back competing regularly then all we can hope for are mixed bag performances.


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