Erin Hills eve: The many complaints of the U.S. Open

By Ryan LavnerJune 14, 2017, 8:16 pm

ERIN, Wis. – The Masters has its own soundtrack, the iconic “Augusta” tune, with its tinkling piano and strings.

Well, the U.S. Open has a theme song, too – a lot of whining.

Sure, there are minor kerfuffles at every big tournament – these are professional athletes, after all – but overall the criticism seems to be muted at three of the four majors. Maybe there’s an odd choice for a tee here, or a questionable pin position there, but the event goes off without a constant chorus of complainers.

Not so at the U.S. Open, which is always rife with controversy and vitriol.

“And usually for good reason,” Brendan Steele said. “The USGA makes a lot of mistakes.”

The first balls aren’t even in the air yet and Erin Hills, just 11 years old and largely unproven on a big stage, has already come under fire.

No surprise here, since it’s become a rite of June. These are the Many Complaints of the U.S. Open:

“The USGA is out of control – that fescue is unplayable!”

By now you’ve seen the videos on social media. Kevin Na tossed a ball into the knee-high weeds just off the fairway and needed a few seconds to actually locate it. Lee Westwood’s caddie, Billy Foster, was nowhere to be seen until he finally emerged, Army-crawling through the tall stuff. (Hope he checked for ticks.)

The oddest part about the fescue is that, on some holes, players are better off missing the massive fairways by 25 yards, not five. It’s the opposite of the graduated rough concept.

On Tuesday afternoon, the USGA decided to trim some of the rough on four holes, citing a “prescribed plan” based on the weather that had blown through and made the fescue lie down and become too dense.

“Really smart,” Steele said … or not.

“Cut the rough?! The USGA has gone soft!”

Rory McIlroy best summed up player and fan sentiment when he was informed that the maintenance staff was out on the course right then, weed eaters in hand.

Really?” he said, clearly exasperated. “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.”

He’s got a point, of course – these are probably the widest fairways we’ve ever seen in a U.S. Open. Miss it in there, and there should be some sort of penalty, whether it’s a hack-out, an unplayable or a reload back on the tee.

The perception was that the USGA caved, that they watched the clips online and scaled back, fearing another revolt like at Chambers Bay.

Not exactly, USGA setup czar Mike Davis said: “It had nothing to do – absolutely zero – with what the players were saying.”

That prompted plenty of eye-rolling, too.

“The U.S. Open SHOULD be tough – it’s only once a year!”

That’s how many justify the four days of ruthless, emotionally draining competition – that next week, and the week after that, players can go back to their bomb-and-gouge mentality.

There has always been more smiles on death row than at a U.S. Open venue. Players came to the year’s second major expecting the worst and usually got it: a long, narrow course, ankle-high rough, and greens that reacted like concrete and rolled like quartz. Oakmont, Winged Foot, Shinnecock, Pinehurst and Pebble are difficult already, no manufactured punishment necessary.

But even the USGA concedes that its philosophy has evolved. It is in the midst of a rebranding, from the “toughest” test in golf to the “ultimate” examination. Accuracy, trajectory, spin, curvature, recovery, management, nerves – they’re all part of the ideal Open package.

“We are never, ever talking about that we have to have even par win or we have to make this as tough as possible,” Davis said.

And then this: “I can promise you, if we wanted to make it really tough, we could make it far, far tougher than what we make them at the Open.”

See, guys – be thankful they have showed restraint.

“Even par should be the winning score!”

Davis insists that even par is not a target score … so it’s purely coincidental, then, that the 72-hole total always seems to creep toward that number.

The winning score has been under par four of the past six years, and that run seems destined to continue this week, with more rain in the forecast and the first par-72 layout at the Open since 1992. Jordan Spieth, in fact, predicted the winning score will be somewhere between 5 and 10 under. Even more eyebrow-raising was this: “And I think the USGA will be OK with that.”

And it should. Even par would be an acceptable winning score if the course was a difficult but fair test. That’s not always the case, as the USGA – which turned a blind eye to golf’s distance boom – has been accused of tricking up the courses to preserve this artificial barrier.

At Merion in 2013, they shifted the mowing lines for fairways and had par 3s in excess of 230 yards and cut hole locations on ridges and slopes. At Chambers Bay in 2015, they destroyed the greens the weekend before the tournament and created such a bumpy putting surface that 5-footers became guessing games.

And last year, at Oakmont, they pushed some of the fastest, most undulating greens in America to the edge, and then past it, as Dustin Johnson’s ball moved while he addressed a short putt.

“If their major pinnacle event for them requires courses to be the way they are,” Adam Scott said, “then it doesn’t set a good example for every other bit of golf that they try to promote. Maybe we should get the numbers out of our heads and try a new strategy.”

“Suck it up! Pro golfers are such babies!”

Not quite. The Open has become an excuse to take a flamethrower to the USGA, which gets one chance a year to exert its influence and challenge the world’s best players. Unfortunately, because of their various blunders – confusing rules, faulty setups, unpleasant fan experiences – the blue blazers lost the benefit of the doubt years ago, thus it’s open season on their various tactics.

There’s this aspect, too, according to Steele: “What’s the worst thing that’ll happen to you if you criticize them? They’ll put you in the last tee time? If you get in, you get in. I think that’s why you see guys speaking out a little more.”

Jack Nicklaus loved when players used to chirp about the course because he could immediately rule them out from contending. In 2017, would there be anybody left?

Mike Davis is way too involved!”

Quick: Name the person who sets up the courses at The Open Championship.


You can’t. And you shouldn’t.

Too often Davis is front and center, defending his setup choices. As a result, the Open becomes as much about Davis as it does the participants, and that doesn’t sit well.

And yet, through all of that, the USGA still holds all the power here.

As much as players might complain about the fescue or the setup or the scores, they aren’t going to boycott the U.S. Open. They’ll still show up and compete for the silver trophy … even if it’s through gritted teeth.

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DJ: Kapalua win means nothing for Abu Dhabi

By Associated PressJanuary 17, 2018, 2:55 pm

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Dustin Johnson's recent victory in Hawaii doesn't mean much when it comes to this week's tournament.

The top-ranked American will play at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship for the second straight year. But this time he is coming off a victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, which he won by eight shots.

''That was two weeks ago. So it really doesn't matter what I did there,'' said Johnson, who finished runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi last year. ''This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I've got to start over again.''

In 2017, the long-hitting Johnson put himself in contention despite only making one eagle and no birdies on the four par-5s over the first three rounds.

''The par 5s here, they are not real easy because they are fairly long, but dependent on the wind, I can reach them if I hit good tee balls,'' the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. ''Obviously, I'd like to play them a little better this year.''

The tournament will see the return of Paul Casey as a full member of the European Tour after being away for three years.

''It's really cool to be back. What do they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder? Quite cheesy, but no, really, really cool,'' said the 40-year-old Englishman, who is now ranked 14th in the world. ''When I was back at the Open Championship at Birkdale, just the reception there, playing in front of a home crowd, I knew this is something I just miss.''

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starts Thursday and also features former No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who is making a comeback after more than three months off.

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Kuchar joins European Tour as affiliate member

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 2:52 pm

Months after he nearly captured the claret jug, Matt Kuchar has made plans to play a bit more golf in Europe in 2018.

Kuchar is in the field this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told reporters in advance of the opening round that he has opted to join the European Tour as an affiliate member:

As an affiliate member, Kuchar will not have a required minimum number of starts to make. It's the same membership status claimed last year by Kevin Na and Jon Rahm, the latter of whom then became a full member and won two European Tour events in 2017.

Kuchar made six European Tour starts last year, including his runner-up performance at The Open. He finished T-4 at the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open in his lone European Tour start that wasn't co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour.

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Hot Seat: Rory jumps into the fire early

By Randall MellJanuary 17, 2018, 2:11 pm

The world’s top tours head to desert regions this week, perfect locales for The Hot Seat, the gauge upon which we measure the level of heat the game’s top personalities are facing ...

Sahara sizzle: Rory McIlroy

McIlroy won’t have to look far to see how his form measures up to world No. 1 Dustin Johnson at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

McIlroy will make his 2018 debut with Johnson in his face, literally.

McIlroy will be grouped with Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood in the first two rounds.

Players like to downplay pairings early in a tournament, but it’s hard to believe McIlroy and Johnson won’t be trying to send each other messages in this European Tour event in the United Arab Emirates. That’s the alpha-dog nature of world-class players looking to protect their turf, or in the case of McIlroy, take back his turf.

“When you are at the elite level, you are always trying to send a message,” Trevor Immelman said about pairings during Tiger Woods’ return at the Hero World Challenge last month.

And that was an offseason event.

“They want to show this guy, ‘This is what I got,’” Immelman said.

As early season matchups go, Abu Dhabi is a heavyweight pairing that ought to be fun.

So there will be no easing into the new year for McIlroy after taking off the last three months to regroup from the stubborn rib injury that plagued him last season. He is coming off a winless year, and he will be doing so alongside a guy who just won the first PGA Tour event of 2018 in an eight-shot rout. Johnson’s victory in Hawaii two weeks ago was his fifth since McIlroy last won.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place, and that was because of where I was physically,” McIlroy said of 2017. “I feel prepared now. I feel ready, and I feel ready to challenge. I feel really good about where I’m at with my health. I’ve put all that behind me, which has been great.”

Sonoran Smolder: Phil Mickelson

Mickelson will turn 48 this summer.

His world ranking is sliding, down to No. 43 now, which is the lowest he has ranked in 24 years.

It’s been more than four years since he last won, making him 0 for his last 92 starts.

There’s motivation in all of that for Mickelson. He makes his 2018 debut at the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Palm Springs area this week talking like a man on a renewed mission.

There’s a Ryder Cup team to make this season, which would be his 12th straight, and there’s a career Grand Slam to claim, with the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, where Mickelson finished second in ’04.

While Mickelson may not feel old, there are so many young stars standing in his way that it’s hard not to be constantly reminded that time isn’t on his side in these events anymore.

There has only been one player in the history of the game to win a major championship who was older than Mickelson is right now. Julius Boros won the PGA Championship when he was 48 back in 1968.

Campaign fever: Jordan Spieth

Spieth’s respect in the game’s ranks extends outside the ropes.

He was just selected to run for the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council’s chairman position. He is facing Billy Hurley III in an election to see who will succeed Davis Love III on the Tour’s Policy Board next year.

Spieth, just 24, has already made Time Magazine’s list of the “100 Most Influential People.” He made that back in 2016, with the magazine writing that “he exemplifies everything that’s great about sports.” Sounds like a campaign slogan.

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CareerBuilder Challenge: Tee times, TV schedule, stats

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 1:10 pm

The PGA Tour shifts from Hawaii to Southern California for the second full-field event of the year. Here are the key stats and information for the CareerBuilder Challenge. Click here for full-field tee times.

How to watch (all rounds on Golf Channel):

Thursday, Rd. 1: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Friday, Rd. 2: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Saturday, Rd. 3: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Sunday, Rd. 4: 3-7PM ET; live stream:

Purse: $5.9 million ($1,062,000 to winner)

Courses: PGA West, Stadium Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,113); PGA West, Nicklaus Tournament Course, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,159); La Quinta Country Club, La Quinta, Calif. (72-7,060) NOTE: All three courses will be used for the first three rounds but only the Stadium Course will be used for the final round.

Defending champion: Hudson Swafford (-20) - defeated Adam Hadwin by one stroke to earn his first PGA Tour win.

Notables in the field

Phil Mickelson

* This is his first start of 2018. It's the fourth consecutive year he has made this event the first one on his yearly calendar.

* For the second year in a row he will serve as the tournament's official ambassador.

* He has won this event twice - in 2002 and 2004.

* This will be his 97th worldwide start since his most recent win, The Open in 2013.

Jon Rahm

* Ranked No. 3 in the world, he finished runner-up in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

* In 37 worldwide starts as a pro, he has 14 top-5 finishes.

* Last year he finished T-34 in this event.

Adam Hadwin

* Last year in the third round, he shot 59 at La Quinta Country Club. It was the ninth - and still most recent - sub-60 round on Tour.

* In his only start of 2018, the Canadian finished 32nd in the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

Brian Harman

* Only player on the PGA Tour with five top-10 finishes this season.

* Ranks fifth in greens in regulation this season.

* Finished third in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and T-4 in the Sony Open in Hawaii.

Brandt Snedeker

* Making only his third worldwide start since last June at the Travelers Championship. He has been recovering from a chest injury.

* This is his first start since he withdrew from the Indonesian Masters in December because of heat exhaustion.

* Hasn't played in this event since missing the cut in 2015.

Patrick Reed

* Earned his first career victory in this event in 2014, shooting three consecutive rounds of 63.

* This is his first start of 2018.

* Last season finished seventh in strokes gained: putting, the best ranking of his career.

(Stats provided by the Golf Channel editorial research unit.)