This is a big week for the United States Golf Association, who can ill afford another embarrassment during the US Open.
For a quick refresher, there were the ravaged greens at Chambers Bay in 2015 that Rory McIlroy described as putting on cauliflower; the handling of the Dustin Johnson ruling that led to a delayed penalty for his ball moving on a putting green in the final round of the 2016 US Open in which Shane Lowry later conceded he didn’t know where he stood in the championship; an Erin Hills course set-up that played too easy; and the most recent debacle at Shinnecock Hills last year when Phil Mickelson struck a still-moving putt during Saturday’s third round in a moment of temporary insanity when the USGA course setup went over the edge.
The player angst and loss of trust in the USGA was highlighted in a scathing story in the June issue of Golf Digest, which included anonymous quotes from 57 people intimately involved in the game, including 35 current players and 16 major champions. It detailed the eroding relationship with the governing body that administrates the Rules of Golf for the US and Mexico and conducts 14 national championships annually for both professionals and amateurs. One former US Open champion summed it up best:
“The gap between the players and the USGA is bigger than it has ever been. There is a total lack of respect. And the USGA people brought it on themselves.”
The resentment ran so deep, according to the story, that at one point in 2016, leading players say they even contemplated the unthinkable: a boycott of the US Open.” Count McIlroy and Johnson among those who were willing to sit out in 2017.
Asked at Wednesday’s USGA press conference just how important it is that the USGA has a smooth US Open this week, John Bodenhamer, who has run USGA amateur championships since 2011, didn’t hesitate: “I think it’s critical,” he said.
After years of sticking its head in the sand, the USGA has responded to some of the criticism. For starters, the USGA’s Mike Davis, citing his CEO demands, has relinquished course-setup duties to Bodenhamer. This was long overdue. In March, the USGA hired PGA Tour veteran and winner Jason Gore as its new senior director of player relations.
“He really has provided us with a bridge to the players that we’ve really never had before in this much of an intentional way,” said Bodenhamer. “It does give the players a voice into us, and at the same time it allows us to share our perspectives and the why we make our decisions to the players in an expeditious manner.”
The USGA has also turned to World Golf Hall of Famer Nick Price, a member of its executive committee, to assist in course setup and enlisted Casey Boyns, a veteran Pebble Beach caddie, who has walked more than 10,000 rounds at the seaside layout.
Did the USGA overreact to the player criticism in its set-up on Thursday? Pebble Beach played as easy as it ever will. Nothing quells player whining more than allowing a few birdies. The 72.66 stroke average was the lowest for a first round of any of the six US Opens contested at Pebble Beach, nearly two strokes lower than the 74.51 recorded in 1992.
Sergio Garcia said it would be impossible for Pebble Beach to play any easier than it did. The US Open is supposed to be about thick rough and fast and hard greens. After last year’s debacle at Shinnecock Hills, USGA officials weren’t going to let the greens get away from them again.
“We were joking when Scott Piercy was 5-under after 6 that the USGA radios were going off saying, ‘Turn the water off now,’ you know, enough of this,” Graeme McDowell said after his opening-round 69.
He also warned that it wouldn’t surprise him if the course setup stiffened as the championship progressed. Could it be like a Peanuts comic strip where Lucy Van Pelt tells Charlie Brown that she will hold a football when he comes running up to kick it? Charlie Brown initially refuses to trust her only to be coaxed into running up to kick the ball. You know how this gag ends up: at the very last second before he can kick it, Lucy removes the ball and Charlie Brown flies into the air before falling on his bottom.
“It’s a sleeping giant, this place. We all know that,” McDowell said.
“Give it another five-mile-an-hour wind out there, and, I mean, the place starts to change.”
“Our philosophy has not changed,” Bodenheimer said of the traditional USGA setup. “We will continue to endeavour to provide the toughest test, the ultimate test, the most comprehensive test, whatever you want to call it, and really just to create something where players’ shot-making ability, mental resolve, physical stamina are tested. We’re not going to lose that.”
But for one day anyway, the USGA had players describing the set-up as “fair.” Asked if it was possible that the USGA finally got the setup right, Mickelson said,” It seems like it. You don’t know how the weather is going to be and all that stuff. But it seems like they did a heckuva job.”