Four takeaways from a controversial US Open
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Four takeaways from a controversial US Open


A few weeks ago, Mark Parsinen, the owner/developer of Kingsbarns and Castle Stuart in Scotland, told me the great old playing fields were open and spacious and allowed players to come up with their own route to the hole.

“Each hole was open to interpretation,” he added. “The path wasn’t dictated by the architect or superintendent. Players chose what they felt was the most appropriate way for them to play the hole in as few strokes as possible.”

Erin Hills harkened back to the (very) old days. The line was rarely obvious off the tee, and the center of the fairway seldom the best place from which to approach the hole. For me, that just makes playing and watching the game profoundly more enjoyable than seeing players hit exactly the same shot to exactly the same spot because that is their only option.

The Augusta Chronicle’s Scott Michaux wrote in yesterday’s paper that while the USGA’s experiment with modern courses was a worthy idea, he was looking forward to the next ten years of tried and tested venues, adding that the US Open should only be played at the likes of Winged Foot, Merion, Oakland Hills, etc. with the familiar tree-lined fairways, thick shin-high rough, 20-yard-wide fairways and rock-hard greens, as this gave the championship its identity and uniqueness.

When you have a writer of Michaux’s caliber and experience making the argument it’s time to stop with the unproven courses and revert to something more familiar, it’s easy to be persuaded. But, here’s the thing - that uniqueness, the elements that characterize the familiar US Open are the very elements that can make it virtually unwatchable at times. I always did watch the US Open, of course – it was the US Open. But I didn’t necessarily look forward to it. I never relished the thought of watching world-class players chopping it out of rough so thick it all but eliminated the need for skill. An assistant pro that went through all the qualifying stages could hack the ball out of the porridge just as ably as Seve Ballesteros or Phil Mickelson.

The other point Michaux makes is that by taking the US Open to Erin Hills, the USGA is robbing us of the chance to compare how Brooks Koepka might play Winged Foot or Baltusrol with how Nicklaus, Palmer or Trevino did.

Again, it’s a valid point, but who’s to say how similar the Winged Foot of 1959, ’74 and ’84 is to today’s version? If Jamie Lovemark, for instance, wins there in 2020 with a score of 270 – 17 strokes better than the frightening 287 Hale Irwin shot in 1974 when the rough was beastly and the equipment more stone-age than space-age, what does that actually tell us? Is Lovemark a much better player than Irwin was?

Par is irrelevant at pro tournaments

Two scenarios:

  1. Erin Hills played to an average of 7,806 yards during the four rounds, with a par each day of 72. For Thursday’s opening round, the four par 5s measured 613 yards (1st), 604 yards (7th), 599 yards (14th) and 632 yards (18th).
  2. Instead of a par 72, Erin Hills is a par 70 as the 7th and 14th are played from forward tees. The course still stretches well over 7,600 yards, but its par is now 70, as it usually is for the US Open.

You get the point, hopefully. You shorten the course by less than 2 percent but take eight shots off the par for 72 holes. So, Koepka plays virtually the same layout but finishes on eight-under instead of 16-under. Now Erin Hills doesn’t seem so easy. Rory McIlroy beat Koepka’s 272 by four shots in 2011, Martin Kaymer was one better in 2014, and four other players – Jim Furyk (2003), Tiger Woods (2000), Lee Janzen (1993) and Jack Nicklaus (1980) have all shot 272 at the US Open.

Par is long-established of course, and will probably never disappear (not soon anyway). At least there used to be distance limits for par 3s and par 4s – anything up to 250 yards was a par 3, and anything between 251 and 475 a par 4. Nowadays, however, par is somewhat arbitrarily allotted with several par 3s exceeding 250 yards, and dozens of par 4s measuring over 500 yards.

Par is a useful and satisfying concept that has been around since the early 1900s. But when it creates as much misunderstanding and misperception as it did last week, would we not just be better off without it?

I maintain hole markers at pro tournaments should have the hole’s number and its yardage – everything else is superfluous.

The player hitting the fewest shots over 72 holes wins – be it 270, 275 or 280. What that number is in relation to par really doesn’t matter.

Brooks Koepka can win as often as he likes.

Watching Koepka play golf, you get the sense something very odd and unexpected has to happen for him not to win. He is clearly an impressive athlete, his swing is more or less flawless, he can putt the lights out under the most intense pressure, he wasn’t overwhelmed by the situation (in fact he stayed incredibly calm throughout), and you could tell from his reaction in the cart as he was driven to the scoring room that it meant a great deal to him. A strong desire, flawless technique, strength of mind and body and calmness in the heat of battle – it’s a pretty useful mix.

But of course, there are numerous other players with similar gifts – indeed a handful of players who you feel are quite capable of dominating. Plus, it’s golf. There’s an elusive and indefinable factor lurking that could prevent Koepka from winning another major for several years, if he wins another one at all.

Or he could win the next five.

I hope Chambers Bay was watching

I’m biased. I live in the Pacific Northwest and love Chambers Bay. I’ve played it a dozen times in non-US Open conditions and feel very strongly the USGA went too far in dehydrating the greens and thickening the rough prior to the 2015 championship. Golfers here had looked forward to the event for seven years, and, though we enjoyed it immensely, it was very disappointing the world’s reaction was almost entirely negative. The course, location and views should have been the story, but instead we’re left with the enduring image of those greens (and Gary Player’s somewhat excessive rant).

The important truth that wasn’t told during the tournament was those greens were significantly better than they had been for the course’s first four or five years. The original superintendent, though very experienced and highly respected, hadn’t been able to consistently grow quality turf and was eventually replaced by Eric Johnson from Bandon Dunes and Josh Lewis from Pasatiempo.

In the two years they had to transform the greens, they did a remarkable job employing a variety of methods to create much better coverage and greens that actually

The mini-drought and high temperatures in the weeks leading up to the championship, coupled with the USGA turning off the water, resulted in the crusty, bumpy, discolored surfaces that shocked everyone watching. I’m no superintendent, and am surely missing some important details, but I don’t think you have to go to greenkeeping school to realize why the greens were so poor.

Lewis, who accepted a position as head superintendent at Almaden CC in California three months after the US Open, says he has moved on from the frustration of June 2015.

“I have no desire to vent or call anybody out,” he says. “But you obviously understand how frustrating it was.”

Chambers Bay is a really good course, and with greens like those at Erin Hills, it would surely have proved popular with the players. But should Pierce County replace the fescue greens with bent? There is no desire or plan to do that right now, and given time and Johnson’s continued grooming they will surely continue to improve.

Yes, that is what I was thinking about for much of last week.

About the author

Tony Dear

A former golf correspondent for the New York Sun, and a senior editor on Today's Golfer magazine in the UK, Dear works for a number of titles on both sides of the Pond, and has written five books on the game, the last two of which he thinks are actually pretty good. He is the golf coach of the Bellingham HS boy's team in Bellingham, Wash., and is looking forward to another cold, rainy, spring season.