There is nothing comparable to watching a major tournament for diehard golf fans, and every golf major is unique in its own right. For the Masters, it’s not only the unofficial start of the golf season for tour players, but also for many other golf fans residing east of the Mississippi River. Spring has set in, birds are chirping, and winter is over. We are reminded of the natural beauty of mother nature and Augusta National, as well as the prestige of the tournament and history surrounding the green jacket.
Fast forward two months later to the next major, the U.S. Open, and the storyline changes from pure joy and happiness to the dreadful, gritty challenge that tour players will face to take home the U.S. Open trophy. Later on, for the Open Championship, which is the oldest of the four majors, we are blessed again with a major highlighted by history dating back to 1860. Finally, to close out the major circuit, the PGA Championship brings along many humbling stories about the local club professionals who have earned their PGA credentials but do not have a PGA TOUR card.
My favorite two majors are the Masters and the U.S. Open. I will save sharing my love story about the Masters for another time. The focus of this piece is the U.S. Open and why this year was a disappointment.
I’ve had a week to digest the 2017 rendition of the U.S. Open. For starters, I love the U.S. Open for completely different reasons than I do the Masters, the primary reason being that I look forward to watching the best of the best struggle just this one time each year. Every other tournament on the schedule makes golf look easy barring some bad weather.
Yes, these guys are good, and yes, they golf for a living. It should be easy for them. I get that. The U.S. Open, however, has been a reliable source of a grind, a struggle, and extreme physical and mental tests year in and year out. The U.S. Open makes the game of golf appear as hard for tour players as it is for the other 99% of the world who play the game.
When I think of the U.S. Open, I think of tests like the Olympic Club in 2012 and the gauntlet Webb Simpson survived to win at 1 over par. I recall the course looking downright terrifying on television. The USGA also threw everything at the competitors, from 20-25 yard wide fairways and extremely penalizing rough, to surprise tee boxes leading to meltdowns and an unforgettable duck hook.
I also think of Chambers Bay and the struggle to keep approach shots from rolling off of the imperfect, bumpy greens. Players complained about the greens, which were more similar to the greens that you and I are accustomed to putting on as opposed to the perfection that the tour players expect. Still, at the end of the day, the best putter on the planet won on those imperfect greens, and every competitor in the field had to putt on them. Both Olympic and Chambers Bay were true tests that separated the men from the boys.
The 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills was lacking, to say the least. The course was touted as the longest in U.S. Open history, but length alone doesn’t make tour players flinch. In the days leading up to the event, one competitor even said that this year’s U.S. Open felt like just another golf tournament. Some say Erin Hills would’ve played far more difficult had it not rained during the days leading up to the tournament, but I’m not buying it. In fact, Sunday was hyped to be a bad weather day, yet 18 players broke par. A bad weather day at a U.S. Open should yield one maybe two scores under par, at most.
Erin Hills played as a par 72, which is somewhat of a rarity for a U.S. Open. Typically, the USGA will turn at least one par 5 into a par 4. I am not certain why this wasn’t the case this year. Perhaps the goal was to again tout the length of the course, with every par 5 stretching over 600 yards. Nobody would reach these in two, right? Wrong. There were 17 eagles on these holes. The longest one, measuring at 667 yards, yielded the most (7). And what was up with the 288 yard par 4 15th that everyone seemed to birdie on Saturday? In 2016, the par 3 8th at Oakmont played longer (299 yards during round 4).
In fairness to Erin Hills, it is a beautiful and challenging course in its own right. Just not for a U.S. Open. I will also admit that I did partially enjoy watching Justin Thomas bomb (and stick!) a 300+ yard three wood from the fairway to make eagle. That was pretty cool. Nor am I trying to take anything away from Brooks Koepka, who put on a clinic, or Brian Harman, a finesse player who you’d think would be at a disadvantage at a 7700+ yard course. They played great golf, executed golf shots, and don’t deserve an asterisk by any means. However, 16 under par just isn’t a true test to me, and tour players should be wetting their pants even thinking about hitting at a target 300 yards away at a U.S. Open.
Technology isn’t helping matters, either. At the time of this writing, Rory is bombing close to 400 yard drives at the Travelers Championship. We all know the ball is only going to travel further in the pro ranks due to the combination of equipment technology and tour players’ dedication to exercise.The USGA should never again justify U.S. Open course difficulty by length alone. Bring back the extremely narrow fairways. Don’t mow the fescue! The physical part of the game is only getting easier, so why not target the mental part of the game by narrowing the fairways, growing the rough, and targeting the players’ minds?
There is some good news, though. With Shinnecock, Pebble Beach, and Winged Foot on the horizon in 2018, 2019, and 2020, golf fans shouldn’t see another low scoring U.S. Open for at least a few years. These courses have traditionally been set up to play very difficult in the past: 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock (Retief Goosen -4; three players finished under par), 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach (Graeme McDowell Even Par), and 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot (Geoff Ogilvy +5). We won’t see a new course, for U.S. Open purposes, until 2023, when the championship will be held at Los Angeles Country Club. I’ve never seen the course, but USGA President Mike Davis has made remarks that make me think that Los Angeles Country Club could play similarly to Erin Hills.
Consider this a plea to the USGA to never make this mistake again. Erase any belief that length alone is going to test these guys. Please give us golf fans a bloodbath of a golf tournament just this one time per year, every year. Keep a rotation of proven traditional courses that have never disappointed in terms of keeping the score around even par. If the course is soft, then find another way to make the course difficult. Make a par 5 a par 4. Heck, make a drivable par 4 a par 3. Don’t mow the fescue when Kevin Na complains. Please, do whatever it takes to make the U.S. Open the daunting task that it is meant to be.
Cover Image via YouTube
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