The US Golf Association had one job — ONE JOB! — this week: Don’t mess up another US Open at Shinnecock Hills like it did in 2004.
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No less than Golf Digest titled its US Open preview story with those four words, “Don’t Mess It Up.”
The USGA promised that what happened in 2004, when strong winds baked the course and made the greens like glass, could never happen again.
They had new tools to measure the firmness of the greens and the moisture in the greens and advanced meteorology to monitor the wind.
And yet on Saturday, the course setup compromised the integrity of the event. Good shots weren’t rewarded, but rather were penalised. USGA chief executive Mike Davis admitted the course that the players experienced at the start of the day — when Tony Finau and Daniel Berger each shot 66 — was very different to the ones the leaders faced later in the day.
Justin Rose, who hung around with 73, said he’s never seen a course change so quickly. “When I saw the second green, I was like, ‘Man, Daniel’s going to be in the hunt tomorrow,” said Rose.
Berger went from barely making the cut to playing in the final pairing yesterday.
Dustin Johnson, the 54-hole leader, shot 77 and said he played pretty well.
“I had six or seven putts today that I could have easily putted right off the green,” he said.
Fans of the game were begging for the USGA to restore order this year and make par a respectable score again after 16-under was last year’s Open’s winning total. Shinnecock Hills showed its teeth on Thursday, but competitors agreed that the setup was tough but fair. They were singing a different tune on Saturday when several of the hole locations teetered on the edge of fairness.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Rose.
“It was not a fair test of golf,” tweeted Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello. “Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course.”
Phil Mickelson voiced his opinion with his actions. At the 13th green, Mickelson struck a downhill putt that raced past the hole and was headed off the green. That’s when Mickelson intervened, jogging after the ball and striking it while it was still moving. The ball lipped out of the cup. He marked, missed from 5ft and tapped in for 8. Mickelson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for making a stroke at a moving ball under Rule 14-5. It was a moment of madness by a Hall of Famer competing in his 27th US Open, the major he so desperately covets to complete his career Grand Slam.
“I don’t mean disrespect by anybody,” Mickelson said to begin his explanation. “I know it’s a two-shot penalty. At that time, I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot over. I took the two-shot penalty and moved on. It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that; I just finally did it.”
Mickelson, in effect, passed on the temporary insanity defence and confessed his intent, which had many wondering why he wasn’t being disqualified under Rule 1-2: “A player must not (i) take an action with the intent to influence the movement of a ball in a play or (ii) alter physical conditions with the intent of affecting the playing of a hole.”
Mickelson is one of the most prominent figures in the game and he knew his actions would speak volumes. Earlier in the week, he described Shinnecock in 2004 as “a carnival course”. He was convinced this week would be different.
“I think this year’s U.S. Open is the greatest setup going that I have seen in my 25-whatever years of playing the US Open,” he said in advance of the championship.
And then the USGA pushed the course setup to the edge and went over the cliff in Round 3. All these years of pent-up frustration of six runner-up finishes and more silver medals than one man can handle poured out. Mickelson gave the USGA a big middle finger and said he wasn’t going to take it anymore. This isn’t the first time the USGA screwed up on course setup. And it begs a question: Why can’t the USGA get through a single US Open without any controversy?
Does Mike Davis have too many responsibilities as USGA chief to give the championship setup his full attention?
Thinking about how the USGA blew it again, I recalled what Rory McIlroy said ahead of the US Open: “I think the USGA thinks that we’re better than we actually are, if that makes sense. I think they overthink it.”
His advice: Shinnecock already is golf’s ultimate test. “You don’t need to trick it up; you don’t need to try and make it too tough,” he said. “Basically they don’t need to do what they have — they just, they leave it as is and they will get a good winner.”
If only the USGA could get out of its own way. Is that asking too much?
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