Golf has crossed the Rubicon. If a US Open at Winged Foot is not the answer to the bomb-and-gouge dilemma, what more defence is left?
Regardless of the outcome of the final round, 21-year-old Matthew Wolff and bulked up Bryson DeChambeau have already proven the point that their style of play cannot be stopped even by blanketing a course in thick rough and firming up diabolical greens. They herald a seismic shift in major preparation.
There’s still room for sweet-swinging artisans like Louis Oosthuizen to contend the old-fashioned way, but the old-school masters will eventually be washed away under waves and waves of next generation players who will never know anything but the model Wolff and DeChambeau present.
If Winged Foot can’t stop players from wildly swinging away with no ultimate consequences for missing fairways, what chance does the Old Course at St Andrews or Augusta National have?
The conventional thought heading to Winged Foot this week was that this particular course with this particular setup would restore order and restrain modern players trying to bash away with impunity. The familiar refrain of “fairways and greens” was on everyone’s lips.
“It’s imperative to hit fairways,” said Tiger Woods, who didn’t hit enough of them and missed the cut.
“This golf course, you can’t play it out of the rough,” said Oosthuizen, who has obviously not seen highlights of the two young guys ahead of him.
Everyone was braced to see a redux of the glorious agonies that crowned Hale Irwin in 1974 and Geoff Ogilvy in 2006 with winning scores of 7 and 5-over par. Instead, we’ve seen two 65s and a lead pairing illustrating little respect for Winged Foot’s familiar defenses.
“I guess what’s a massacre?” McIlroy said when asked to explain why the field is exceeding expectations.
“Yeah, okay, 5-over is not going to win like last time and 7-over when Hale Irwin won. I’d say the golf course is playing just as difficult. You know, you’ve got to think 14 years on the game has changed a lot, guys hit it further, equipment. There’s a lot of different things. Scoring averages have went down a little bit, on average. The game has just moved on a little bit and everyone has collectively, I think, just got a little bit better.”
Lee Westwood made a similar argument after 21 players broke par in the first round, noting that technology, analytics and training have combined to make players better equipped to overcome golf’s traditional defenses.
“Everybody drives the ball so well now that how much are we going to keep extending golf courses?” he said. “I’m 47 years of age. I bet, if you look at my driving stats today, I probably averaged 315 yards, maybe longer. … It’s very difficult to, say, pro-proof a golf course. We’re good, and we hit it straight generally. We’re going to shoot low scores in certain conditions.”
Wolff went out Saturday and shot 65 despite hitting two — yes, TWO — fairways all day to stake himself to the 54-hole lead in his first appearance at the US Open. Despite his inaccuracy off the tee, Wolff still managed to hit 13 greens — second only to Oosthuizen’s 14 in the third round.
DeChambeau hit only three fairways himself Saturday yet scrambled his way to even par on the day and into the final pairing. He’s the only player in the field not to have a single round over par through the first three days. Wolff and DeChambeau hit a grand total of 12 and 17 fairways in three rounds, T58 and T31 respectively among the 62 players to make the cut. Xander Schauffele has only hit 13 himself yet came into Sunday tied fourth.
DeChambeau laid out his gameplan at the start of the week and has delivered on everything he said he would do.
“For the most part I’m going to be trying to go after it as much as I possibly can,” he said. “Even if I hit it in the rough, I still feel like I can make birdies out here.”
There’s probably no putting the genie back in the bottle on golf’s technological arms race. The USGA and R&A let equipment get away from them years ago and have dragged their collective feet on addressing the golf ball. They’ve shown no appetite for “bifurcation” to address the massive disparity between the elite players and recreational golfers. Short of dialing back the golf ball that pros use, the only options are adding length, shifting hazards, hiding pins and narrowing targets with long, thick rough.
Winged Foot did all of those conventional things before the US Open returned. And while it worked to a large degree on most of the field and foiled some bids as intended, it has been no deterrent to Wolff and DeChambeau who are blazing a trail that may change the future of golf at the highest level.