Tag Archives: US Open

DJ Gets One Back

The USGA does a lot of good things for golf, but running the US Open isn’t necessarily one of them.

By now, most everyone with a mild interest in this year’s championship is aware of the rules fiasco involving eventual champion Dustin Johnson. His ball moved a millimeter backwards between the time he completed his practice swings and when he was about to place his putter behind the ball. He immediately stopped, called over a rules official, explained what had happened, and apparently was given a clean bill of health to continue play with no penalty.
About an hour or so later, the FOX announcing team reported that USGA rules officials were “reviewing” the Johnson Incident, and had notified DJ to essentially report to the principal’s office once his round was completed.

This sent Joe Buck and company, most of the golfing community not associated with the USGA, and yours truly into a state of apoplexy. Johnson, who years ago at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, had been the unfortunate victim of a rather harsh ruling, followed every correct protocol and was told to proceed without penalty. Now, in addition to having to negotiate one of the toughest tests of golf known to mankind, there was the distinct (and as it turned out, very real) possibility of being penalized in an ex post facto fashion.

Twitter lit up with posts from Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Ricky Fowler, all vilifying the USGA. Golf’s greatest curmudgeon, Dan Jenkins, had a field day, finally commenting, “If I were Dustin, I’d ask for cash instead of a check.”

Fortunately for all of us, this all became moot thanks to DJ’s steady play down the stretch, along with third round leader Shane Lowrey doing his best imitation of a cheap suit. Still, the fact that this became a major talking point of the tournament is a black eye for the USGA.

Johnson had knocked on the door of major championships before, most recently at the US Open at Chambers Bay last year when, after hitting two of the most incredible shots on a closing hole in a major that I’ve ever witnessed (although yesterday’s finish came close), he inexplicably three putted from 12 feet, handing the trophy to a stunned Jordan Spieth.
He has also had something of a past during his career on Tour, have been sent twice on “leaves of absence” (PGA Tour weasel-speak for “suspended”), allegedly to deal with substance abuse issues. Johnson is a very guarded individual and has chosen not to speak of any problems he’s had.

At the same time, DJ is one of the Tour’s popular stars. A pure athlete, he prowls the course with an appealing insouciance. His partner and mother of his child, Paulina Gretzky, is a head-turning beauty (I witnessed this first hand at the Byron Nelson Classic a few years ago, when a golf cart carrying Ms Gretzky out to the course whizzed by the 10th tee where one Jordan Spieth was getting ready to hit. It was probably the only time all weekend that Spieth did not command the attention of the gallery). He routinely pounds accurate drives of over 300 yards, a result of a swing that, at first glance, has the apparent ease of a Freddie Couples; when seen in slow motion, the contortion of his torso is wince-inducing, an evidence of the source of his tremendous power. When it comes to golf, chicks and guys dig the long ball.

If there’s been a knock on Johnson’s game, it’s been around his short game. His putting can be erratic, and statistically he’s one of the worst bunker players on tour, two factors that frankly had me convinced that he would not be able to stand up to the diabolical greens and cavernous hazards that are the main defenses of Oakmont.

But, as several folks pointed out to me prior to the start of the Open, bombers tend to do well at Oakmont (Nicklaus, Els, and Cabrera certainly fit that bill), and DJ is nothing if not a bomber. He drove the ball well for the majority of the tournament and handled the labyrinth of greens complexes as well as anyone could have.

And most importantly, Dustin Johnson displayed the discipline and mental toughness required to win the US Open. And given the unexpected and totally farcical injustice perpetrated on him by the USGA’s ruling, this has to be particularly gratifying for him.

And – considering that seven of the eight previous US Open champions crowned at Oakmont are multiple major champions, it won’t be surprising to see DJ bag another one in the not too distant future. I’d love to see it. And I hope the USGA, or the R&A, or the PGA, or the Masters Rules committee sees fit to leave him the hell alone.


No Complaints This Year – The Golf Nerd’s US Open Preview

Last year’s US Open brought howls of indignation from most of the golfing world, citing everything from Fox’s spectacularly awful initial attempt at golf coverage to the site of tournament (apparently my opinion of Chambers Bay was outside of the mainstream).

Fox has addressed at least part of its issues, removing a surprisingly bland Greg Norman from its broadcasting team and replacing him with straight-shooting Paul Azinger, whose presence on TV has been limited to the Open Championship over the past few years. Azinger is honest, funny, and fearless in his commentary, and should make Joe Buck much more comfortable as a lead commentator. On the other hand, we’ll still have to suffer with the inane on-course comments of Natalie Gulbis, whose best assets won’t be seen on camera very often, much to the chagrin of the male population  viewing at home.

As for this year’s site – it’s hard to argue with Oakmont, a course which most folks would acknowledge to be the gold standard for US Open tracks; a tough, penal layout, with greens so slick that Sam Snead once remarked that he couldn’t mark his ball because the coin that he used to do so kept sliding off of the putting surface.
Yes, Oakmont’s greens are legendary for their speed; so slick are their surfaces that the USGA asks the club’s superintendent to slow them down to run at 13 on the Stimpmeter (the greens at most tour events run between 10.5 and 11.5; a member at Oakmont can typically expect to experience a speed of 15 for daily play). To achieve such green speeds at most any other club would amount to committing agronomical suicide, but the makeup of Oakmont’s putting surfaces is unique, consisting of a rare strain of heat tolerant poa annua (most of us know poa annua as a cool weather grass that can be either a blessing in areas like the Pacific Northwest or a blight on bent grass or Bermuda greens in other parts of the country) that can be rolled as often as one likes.

If that’s not enough to give one pause, Oakmont offers up over 200 bunkers, including the notorious “Church Pews,” which stretch over 100 yards and invokes language that would most assuredly would not be welcomed in any self-respecting parish, as well as the requisite US Open wrist-shattering rough. And you will not see any short par-5’s being turned into brutish par-4’s in order to conform to the USGA’s maddening efforts to “protect par” at Oakmont, a course which could readily host a major championship at a moment’s notice.

Oakmont has hosted the US Open eight times, the most famous of which was in 1962 when a young Jack Nicklaus bested a heavily favored Arnold Palmer in The King’s own backyard. Arnie’s Army was extremely inhospitable to the Golden Bear (which Palmer hated to see) but that did not seem to bother Jack very much. It was his first professional victory, and far from his last.

In 1973, Johnny Miller carded what was to become one of the most spectacular final rounds in major championship history that hardly anyone saw, torching Oakmont with a 63 that several possibly bitter Oakmont members attributed to a rainstorm that blew through the night before to “soften” conditions. Miller was so far back going into the finale that he was only televised for a few holes. He then had to wait another hour before the final groups made it in, none of whom were able to catch him.

The last time that Oakmont hosted the US Open was in 2007. Like Johnny Miller, Angel Cabrera, the eventual winner, finished well ahead of his two closest pursuers, Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods, both of whom missed birdie putts on the final hole that would have forced a next day playoff. Cabrera seemingly went through a pack of cigarettes on each nine he played during the Open; when asked about this, he replied, “Some guys consult with psychologists. I smoke.”

Other Oakmont winners include Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan, Ernie Els, and Larry Nelson, who along with the aforementioned, are all multiple major championship winners [NOTE: One could win a lot of bar bets by posing the question, “Who has won more majors, Larry Nelson or Greg Norman?”]. It’s not a course for the faint of heart, and whoever survives this weekend will most certainly be worthy. I look for a big hitter who can muscle the ball from the rough and negotiate those slick greens.

It says here that Jason Day will tack on another major this weekend. And the winning score will be even par.

But the star of the Open will be Oakmont.

In The Eye of the Beholder

I loved this year’s US Open, and I loved its venue, Chambers Bay – warts and all.

Yes, perhaps the contours are overdone. And the greens would make any self-respecting municipal course blush. And the various course configuration changes from day to day (changes in hole par and radical relocations of teeing grounds) lent no sense of continuity to the proceedings. And an on-course spectator likely found the course viewing areas difficult to navigate.

Jason Day collapsed on the course, causing Greg Norman to turn into a TV doctor.

Tiger Woods shot 80 in the first round and was not the high man in his group.

The eventual winner, Jordan Speith, finished birdie/double-bogey/birdie.

A fire broke out in a nearby warehouse.

And while we’re at it, FOX’s debut as a golf broadcasting entity was decidedly mixed. There were certain aspects of the coverage that were welcome, such as extensive use of the shot tracker and sharp graphics depicting distances to hazards and greens. Additional microphones were able to pick up player/caddy conversations – and at time one could hear the ball rolling across the crusty greens. On the other hand, the camera person handling approach shots to the greens at times seemed to be taking advantage of Washington State’s marijuana laws, and the commentary team showed its inexperience throughout the week. Norman was at his best in analyzing individual player swing traits, but was otherwise a rather bland presence. Too much time was spent following players from hole to hole and not enough on actual golf shots. And – while this may have been somewhat cruel – I thought Joe Buck and company lost a golden opportunity when Dustin Johnson suffered his inglorious fate on the final hole in not querying Norman on what Johnson might be feeling, as the Great White Shark’s own meltdowns have been well chronicled.

Most US Open courses are par 72 courses that have been converted to par 70, featuring fairways so narrow that the participants almost feel the need to walk single file through them. The rough is often grown to calf-length (and sometimes more), more often than not leaving players no other option than to hack their way back into play. And the USGA pretty much mandates that by the conclusion of the tournament, the greens are, if not dead, certainly on life support.

Ah yes, the greens at Chambers Bay were the topic of many an unpleasant discussion. Their fescue grasses were invaded by poa annua and resembled a really bad countertop over which a potential homebuyer on HGTV would have a conniption. Players could not decide if the putting surfaces resembled broccoli (Henrick Stenson) or cauliflower (Rory McIlroy). Billy Horshel threatened to beat one green into submission, and after his round said he was “disappointed” with the USGA (this, by the way, after a closing round of 67). Ian Poulter, never one to hold back, accused the USGA of “lying” about the condition of the greens (and included a photo on his Twitter feed as evidence). Brent Snedekker, making a late charge on Sunday, struck a putt that, after cruising along for about 15 feet, hit something that caused it to take what looked like a 3 inch hop before stopping well short of the hole. And Gary Player called the whole thing a “disgrace.”

And by the way – with the possible exception of Player, who may have been using the event to take a dig at course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr.- the players had every right to bitch about the greens. If someone comes into your workplace and defecates on your desk, you wouldn’t be happy about it. One could make the “it’s the same for everybody” argument, but what happened to Snedekker was criminal.

Having said all that . . .

If the goal of a US Open course is to test a player’s patience while protecting par, then Chambers Bay fit the bill and then some. It just didn’t do so in the conventional sense. Its deceptively wide fairways invite aggressive play, but much like The Old Course, there are preferred target lines to set up the best possible approach shots. The wild green contours made for some creative greenside shot making. I watched Ricky Fowler and Louis Oosthuizen (who, after an opening round 77, came back with consecutive rounds of 66 and on Sunday, damn near stole the title with an outrageous 29 on the back nine) play from the same greenside area and take two completely different circuitous paths to the hole; both of them wound up about 5 feet away. And – much like at Pinehurst #2 last year – unless a player was extremely wild, one could usually play from the massive fairway bunkers and scrubby rough if he missed the fairway.

And, taking a page from Augusta National, the back nine setup on Sunday definitely encouraged some daring play, with the two drivable par-4’s and particularly 18 (set up as a par 5 on Sunday, as it should have been all tournament), which produced Speith’s full tilt 3-wood from 286 yards to set up his go-ahead birdie . . . and for poor Johnson (who is quietly becoming this generation’s Greg Norman), who hit two perfect shots (a booming drive and a 5 iron on the 608 yard hole) to within 12 feet. The putt he faced was slippery, and he had had putting issues throughout the back nine (caused by faulty stroke that was pretty visible even to a casual observer). But he also made a clutch birdie at 17 and at worst looked to force an 18 hole playoff with Speith by two putting. He even got a look at Jason Day’s comebacker, which was on the same line as his own putt that proved to be his undoing. He . . . just . . . plain . . . missed.

Fox failed to show Speith’s immediate reaction when Johnson missed the crucial putt (although they did get a nice shot of DJ holding his infant son while walking with fiancé Paulina Gretzky, which I suppose was something of a salve for him), but all Jordan could say was “I’m in shock.” He’s also half way to golf’s Grand Slam, although he refused to take Holly Sonders’s bait regarding that topic. The kid is amazingly grounded, but you can tell that the Open had taken its toll on him. Which it should.

Hazeltine National hosted the US Open in 1970, where Dave Hill proclaimed that “they wasted 80 acres of good farmland building this course.” Improvements were made, and it has since hosted another US Open and two PGA Championships. Next year, the Ryder Cup will be played there. Fix the greens and shave off a few rough edges (but not too many), and Chambers Bay should get another shot as a major championship venue. It’s too damned entertaining not to. And any course that gives you a view of Mt Rainer and Puget Sound can’t be all bad.