The United States Open. It is referred to as “the toughest test in golf” played annually on the most difficult courses across America, set up in the hardest way possible. As a fan it’s electric. Seeing players flub approaches out of the rough, have putts go off the green and down slopes 30 yards from the pin, throwing clubs or screaming at their caddies and on and on. I’ll be honest I’ve rooted for carnage in the past. But there IS a fine line, and the USGA is the one governing body that has, some would argue, crossed that line more than anyone else. And while it may be “fun” to watch at times, those who have to actually play under the intense conditions with money, history, fame and pressure all hanging over their heads have been vocal in their displeasure.
It’s become a task nearly impossible to pull off properly. Last year at Shinnecock Hills the winning score was +1, seemingly the perfect winning score for golfs toughest test. Not so fast. Two-time major champion Zach Johnson told the media that the USGA had “lost the golf course.” Phil Mickelson, fresh off a controversial running putt, said in reference to Shinnecock’s 7th hole that he was “worried any time they (the USGA) got a hold of it.” Even Rory McIlroy got into the mix, adding, “I don’t think it should be as much of an exact science to set up golf course as it is. … They over think it. … It’s been a very reactionary few years.” Billy Horschel got on the grumble train too, adding, ”I think a lot of players, and I’m one of them, have lost some respect for the USGA and this championship this year.”
This wasn’t a one-off either. Far from it. The year prior to that Brooks Koepka tore up Erin Hills and won with a score of 16-under. This of course had the pendulum swinging the other way completely. After early reports during the week (including the below video of Kevin Na) saw complaints that the rough was too penal, the USGA listened and cut it down in sections. They listened so players must’ve been happy, right? Wrong. It led to comments like this from Rory McIlroy: “Really? We have 60 yards from left line to right line. You’ve got 156 of the best players in the world here. If we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home.”
How about the year before that? 2016 at Oakmont. You don’t have to look far into that for controversy either. Dustin Johnson eventually emerged victorious, earning his first major title in spectacular fashion. But the whole golf world was on pins and needles while DJ maneuvered his way through the back nine, a potential penalty stroke hanging in the balance after his ball oscillated a couple of dimples forward on the 5th green during his final round. The issue wasn’t necessarily the penalty itself but the confusion as to how it was handled. DJ would eventually be given a one-stroke penalty after the completion of his round. Thankfully Dustin won by four strokes so it became just a three-stroke victory but what if it had been a single stroke and he was forced into a playoff. Or even worse if he thought he were about to get into a playoff only to find out he wasn’t (a la the 2010 PGA Championship).
I could keep going for pages and pages, but let’s just look back one more year. The 2015 US Open at Chamber’s Bay. Dustin Johnson was heavily involved in these proceedings as well, three-putting from short range on the 72nd hole to miss out on a playoff by a stroke. Within a five-minute stretch Dustin faced a putt to win the tournament and a putt to force a playoff and missed both. Usually that would be on the player, and I’d argue it still is, but the greens and their performance at Chambers were a constant source of fodder for the players all week. Ryan Palmer started things off with this quote early in the week, “As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course — not with the way some of the greens are and the pin placements they can put out there. … It will get a lot of bad press from the players. It is a joke. I don’t understand it. I just don’t know why they would do it.” Sergio Garcia chimed in on Twitter as well, “I think a championship of the caliber of U.S. Open deserves better quality green surfaces that we have this week but maybe I’m wrong!” Not many guys thought he was wrong though. Even the eventual champion Jordan Spieth was caught on a hot mic telling his caddie on the 18th hole, which was playing as a par-4 that day that, “this is the dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life.”
I say all this to say that it’s become a yearly occurrence for the players to rip on the USGA. The last time they played a US Open at Pebble Beach (where they return this week) even Tiger Woods took umbrage with the setup, calling the greens “just awful”. Ryan Moore said that USGA setup made him “hate golf for about two months.”
So what can we expect this year? I spoke with players with various levels of success on their major resumes to see what they were hoping and expecting once they step foot on Pebble’s hallowed grounds.
2x US Open Champion BROOKS KOEPKA: “I hope they set it up just like they have. I’ve done pretty good on it (laughter). So whatever they are doing, it’s working for me. I don’t care what they do. You know, we’ve all got to play the same golf course. It doesn’t matter. Guys like to complain. I just don’t complain. We all got to play it. We all got to deal with the same issues. If you hit every fairway and you hit every green, you’re not going to run into any problems.”
Former World #1 LUKE DONALD: “I think we know how they’re going to set it up. They’re going to tighten the fairways to what we are usually used to. I’m sure they’re hoping for firm conditions. But other than that the course just sort of plays difficult in itself depending on wind and weather conditions. But if we get some breeze, with tight fairways and long rough and small undulating greens it becomes paramount to try and hit the fairways.”
2016 PGA Champion JIMMY WALKER: “I hope they don’t screw it up. Hope they don’t make it too fast and hard like they always do, make it unplayable. The rough is fine, it’s the greens. I don’t know, they always seem to make it more about them than the golf tournament.”
5x PGA Tour Winner JB HOLMES: “I haven’t played it when its been real firm. But the greens are so small that hopefully they don’t let the greens get so firm that we cant play it. They’re already really small with a lot of slope so if you get the speed which I’m sure they’ll have and then add real firm you cant control it. So good shots don’t get rewarded, you almost have to land it in the rough and hope it trickles on. So I’m fine with it being hard and you’ve got to hit good shots but you don’t want it to be when you hit a good shot and it ends up bad. Really the firmness of the greens will be the thing. They can get them as fast as they want but if you get them real firm you cant control your shots in and that’s the main thing.”
2010 US Open Champ at Pebble Beach GRAEME MCDOWELL: “Pebble, I’m expecting it to be firm. Looks like dry conditions out there. Hoping it’s going to be firm, fast. Make the greens play really, really small. Super disciplined iron play required. Really penal if you miss the greens. Similar to 2010 really. Doesn’t require tons of rough. Firmness really is the protector at Pebble, and then obviously wind and a bit of weather.”
Players will start arriving on the grounds today so the only real questions that remain are: What will the players take issue with this year? And how long until those complaints begin?