Finding the right line between testing and ‘tricked up’

In recent years, the USGA has suffered from an identity complex. It tries to protect par and live up to its reputation as golf’s toughest test.

Finding the right line between testing and ‘tricked up’

The grand experiment is over. After going to untested layouts for two of the last three US Opens, the United States Golf Association embarks on a run of tried-and-true classic courses with major championship pedigree for at least the next decade.

In addition to Shinnecock Hills Golf Club this week (and again in 2026), the names include the likes of Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Pinehurst, and The Country Club. It’s hard to mess up that line-up.

But if history teaches us anything, this year’s field may be in for a beating. The year after Johnny Miller torched Oakmont in a major-championship record round of 63, Hale Irwin won the title with a 72-hole aggregate of 7 over at ‘The Massacre at Winged Foot’.

After Olympia Fields played soft in 2003, Shinnecock Hills was tricked up to such an extent that no one broke par in the final round and the average score was 78.7.

Same story when Rory McIlroy turned the US Open into the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 2011, setting a new scoring record at 16 under.

No one broke par the following year when American Webb Simpson won the title at the Olympic Club.

Which brings us to last year, when par took a beating at Erin Hills near Milwaukee. American Brooks Koepka matched McIlroy’s 72-hole scoring record en route to claiming his first major title.

So will history repeat itself? Will there be carnage this time?

“I hope not,” said World No2 Justin Thomas, who tied Miller’s score of 63 on an Erin Hills course played under soft, benign conditions.

“We’re too good for that to be playing difficult... They don’t need to do anything to Shinnecock to make it hard. Shinnecock can be soft and it will still play hard.”

“The fairways are going to be a lot more narrow, the greens are smaller, have a lot more slope, so I hope they don’t try to set it up too hard because it could get out of hand.”

Out of hand is one way to describe what happened to Shinnecock back in 2004 when the US Open was last held here. Phil Mickelson went a step further and described it as “a carnival course”.

The seventh, a Redan hole playing 189 yards, garnered the headlines at the 2004 US Open when its green — sloping front right to back left — became impossible to hold and the USGA relented and watered the putting surface during play. It wasn’t the USGA’s finest moment.

“It was certainly a bogey last time,” said USGA chief Mike Davis. “In fact, maybe even a double bogey.”

In recent years, the USGA has suffered from an identity complex. It tries to protect par and live up to its reputation as golf’s toughest test. The US Open is supposed to be hard. But the USGA also wants to “grow the game” and there is no bigger turn off to new potential golfers than watching the best players in the world pitch out from rough up to their ankles.

Davis has attempted to appease both sides by adding a graduated rough and tightly mown grass around the greens to allow more creativity in recovery shots. But to some, this has reduced the importance of accuracy, especially off the tee, from the ingredients necessary to be a US Open champion.

“Mowed surrounds or run-off areas have their place, but not at most US Opens,” said Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. “Would Tom Watson’s chip (at the 17th holes of the 1982 US Open at Pebble Beach) be anywhere near as famous had he needed only a putter? No.”

Chamblee added: “The USGA seems hell-bent on throwing curve balls to the players, in some way acquiescing and in some way confounding the players; acquiescing to the more inaccurate drivers of the best players and confounding in the way they set up the course.”

The USGA is on a particularly bad run that began at Chambers Bay in 2015 when the greens were more like browns — or as McIlroy put it, not like broccoli but rather “like cauliflower”. The following year at Oakmont, the greens were slick as oil and when Dustin Johnson’s ball moved on the fifth green without him ever intending to make contact, the US Open entered the bizarro world for the next two hours as a delay whether to penalise Johnson a stroke under Rule 18-2/0.5 meant viewers didn’t know if Shane Lowry or Johnson was leading, and by how much. McIlroy called the USGA’s handling of the situation “amateur hour”.

Last year, the USGA appeased players that whined that the rough at Erin Hills was too difficult and mowed some of the fescue.

“Really? We have 60 yards from left line to right line,” barked McIlroye last year.

When asked about the course setup at US Opens in advance of this year’s championship, McIlroy described it as “very reactionary”.

“I think the USGA thinks that we’re better than we actually are, if that makes sense. I think they overthink it. ”

“I don’t think it should be as much of an exact science to set up the golf as it is. I mean get the fairways sort of firm, grow the rough, put the pins in some tough locations, but fair, and go let us play.”

On the eve of the 118th US Open, McIlroy, who called the fairways “generous”, gave this year’s setup two thumbs up.

“I think they’ve got it right,” he said. “It presents guys with options off the tee. You have to make a decision basically on every tee box what you’re going to do.”

So Shinnecock Hills is ready for its close-up, and now all the USGA has to do is let them play.

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