Last month, Golf Digest printed an article titled USGA Confidential in which top players from both tours and other “insiders” were given the opportunity, under the condition of anonymity, to talk frankly about the USGA and its role in conducting its prize competition, the US Open. Not surprisingly, most of the comments skewed negatively, be it regarding course setup, purse money, or the interpretation/application of rules
Also not surprisingly, the majority of complaints about course setup came from American PGA tour players. More on that anon.
When the Byron Nelson Classic was still being played at TPC Las Colinas, I had the opportunity to ride the course in the early morning prior to its opening round with Scott Abernathy, who was at that time the head grounds superintendent at that course and responsible for course setup. One of the most repeated words from Dr Abernathy that morning (Scott holds a doctorate degree in Agronomy from Texas A&M) was “consistency,” be it for the sand in the bunkers, length of rough, and speed of the greens (this latter item is no joke. Scott interrupted our session for a moment when he spotted one of his crew mowing a part of the PRACTICE green in the wrong direction, which would impact the speed of putts by maybe 3 to 6 inches).
It was a very instructive session, as it emphasized the point that at least on the PGA Tour, players expect on a weekly basis to have similar course conditions from week to week – greens that run about 11 on the stimpmeter, rough around 2 inches high, and sand that is found to be . . . well, consistent. So when your average PGA Tour player experiences conditions that vary from the norm, he’ll tend to express some discontent about the situation.
The result of this is that the USGA gets to be the whipping boy every year when the US Open rears its head, and to be fair, some of the criticism is well earned. Shinnecock Hills, which by rights should be an ideal site for an Open, has been all but rendered unplayable the past two times it has played host by the USGA’s failure to take into account wind conditions in the eastern end of Long Island. Chambers Bay, host of the 2015 US Open, was conducted with greens that had the look and texture of one of those sponges one can purchase that are pre-loaded with detergent. And the manner in which the USGA officiating committee penalized Dustin Johnson for allegedly causing his ball to move prompted near-rebellion from Tour players (as well as a rules change that now would never have called DJ’s action into question).
But back to the Golf Digest article for a moment – again, most of the complaints come from American players, some of which seem remarkably petty. One caddy felt insulted that a USGA official reminded him to make sure that there weren’t more that 14 clubs in his player’s bag. Ask Ian Woosnam if he would have welcomed such a reminder at the 2011 Open Championship. Players question what the USGA does with the millions of dollars in broadcast rights fees it has received from Fox TV, i.e., why aren’t we getting more money?.
The European Tour players quoted in the article are much less peeved at the USGA. One of them noted, “I played with two leading Americans in the first two rounds last year. One whined for two days. The other’s caddie had to tell him to shut up at one point, he was being such a pain. He said it was ‘clown golf,’ but it wasn’t. He was just hitting it bad.” This sort of attitude reflects a reality of playing overseas – one encounters more varied conditions requiring different styles of play on the European Tour than here in the good ol’ USA, where we’ve made the game resemble outdoor billiards in all too many instances.
So there should be plenty to talk about when this year’s US Open starts on Thursday at Pebble Beach, which is considered to be as sacred a piece of golf turf as one will find in the USA. Be forewarned that the conditions and setup that we’ll watch will be far different than what is typically seen when the AT&T Pro-Am is conducted there in February – the course will be longer (although short by US Open standards), par will be one stroke lower (the 528 yard 2nd hole is changed to a par 5, one of those silly acts from the USGA in its artificial pursuit of “preserving par”), the fairways more narrow, and the rough much higher (so for all those hanging their visors on Phil Mickelson finally capturing a US Open based on his win at Pebble earlier this year, remember that old saw about a fool parting with his money).
The setup will likely take the driver out of play on most holes for the majority of the field, which in theory broadens the number of contender and reduces the likelihood of Brooks Koepka winning his third straight trophy in the event. Bet against Koepka against your own peril. He has shown that he can win or contend on a variety of major championship venues in a variety of conditions; furthermore, I can guarantee with 100% certitude that he was not one of the players quoted in the Golf Digest article complaining about course setup.
If not Koepka . . . yes, I’ve seen the broadcast of Tiger’s 15 shot victory here eons ago. He played well at Nicklaus’s Memorial, and right now, his iron play is otherworldly, which gives him an advantage on Pebble’s tiny greens. He’ll be a factor. Jordan Spieth’s game (particularly his putting) has been on the uptick and will also be dangerous on a track that does not require him to hit driver a lot. If you’re looking for a dark horse, you could do worse than Brant Snedeker, who has also been rounding into form, or Graham McDowell, who won at Pebble the last time the US Open was conducted there and has had a resurgent season to date. The setup could also favor someone like Francesco Molinari, although he still seems to be suffering from a post-Masters collapse hangover.
Speaking of hangovers, I don’t like Rory this week, despite his impressive win at the Canadian Open. Dustin Johnson has a checkered history at Pebble, although I suppose if anyone has the capacity to forget the past, it’s DJ. Spaniards Sergio Garcia and Jon Rahm have abysmal major tournament records of late; the former not making a major cut since his 2017 Masters victory, the latter only doing so in 3 of his last 8 major efforts.
I’m predicting a historic Koepka win and hope for a controversy-free US Open. Somehow, I think the former is more likely.