BETHESDA, Md. – Rory McIlroy isn’t the only golfer having his way with the Blue Course at the U.S. Open. See the 65s from Jason Day and Lee Westwood? And the 66s from Webb Simpson and Fredrik Jacobson? Count ‘em: a record-setting 26 rounds under par on Saturday.
“I’ve been a little disappointed with the golf course the last couple of days. It wasn’t as firm and fast as I would like to have seen it,” said defending champion Graeme McDowell, whose red-number contribution was a 69 that put him at even par going into Sunday. “The greens are soaking wet, and so are the fairways. It’s target golf. It’s not really a U.S. Open.”
The previous record for subpar rounds in the third round of a U.S. Open was 24, set at Medinah in 1990. Congressional could produce scores like this back when the Kemper Open was played here and no one would blink, but it’s now supposed to be rigged up for the toughest test in golf.
“You can take advantage of it and go for more flags than you can in a U.S. Open,” said Jacobson, who birdied 10 of 15 holes with nary a bogey during a stretch that began late in the second round. “That’s why I think we’re seeing red numbers. It is what it is. If it rains a bit, you’ve got to try and make the most out of it.”
The U.S. Golf Association spent years planning for this weekend. All the greens were rebuilt. Tee boxes were moved back so far that they’re nearly bisecting other fairways, making it often confusing to figure out which hole is next without the aid of a map or a directional sign. It’s a whopping 7,574 yards from start to finish if all the back tees are used.
But last week’s stifling temperatures and humidity sent the heat index into triple-digit territory, stunting the growth of the rough, wilting the fairways and greens and putting the USGA behind in its preparations. The rain finally started falling on Thursday after play was under way – literally a gift from the heavens for anyone who likes their golf in the 60s.
“I don’t think we’re going to try to trick Mother Nature,” said Tom O’Toole, chairman of the USGA’s championship committee. “This is what we’ve got in 2011. You come to the U.S. Open in the District of Columbia or Maryland in June, that’s the dice you roll. That’s what we got with a soft golf course. It’s not coastal California. It’s not Long Island, Shinnecock, where the course is built on sand. It’s a heavy soil golf course.”
Even those not shooting in the red are faulting themselves for leaving strokes on the course. World No. 1 Luke Donald said he “could’ve shot a couple under quite easily” if he’d only made a few putts.
“The rough isn’t quite as gnarly as at some other U.S. Opens,” Donald said after his third-round 74. “It has that different feel. It almost feels like the Firestone or something. It’s still tough out there, some tough pins, and you’ve got to play well to shoot a good score.”
Phil Mickelson was also among those looking for a tougher challenge, even though he appeared to be challenged quite sufficiently in his round of 77.
“It would be really fun to see had we not had the rain,” Mickelson said, “because I think it’s such a fair setup that it could accommodate fair conditions that they were anticipating. But, really, the course itself is very fair and leads itself to good scores if you play well and high scores if you don’t, which I don’t think you could ask for anything more.”
O’Toole said the low scores aren’t going to change the “road map” the USGA laid for the course for the four days of play. There are no plans to conjure up outrageous pin placements; no wickedly speeded-up the greens just because McIlroy has a record score of 14 under.
“It certainly isn’t the mindset to react to good scoring and say, ‘Ah, ha, we’ll show ‘em,”’ O’Toole said. “We are trying to test the greatest players in the world physically and mentally. That’s what we’re going to try to do tomorrow, and if that score, whether it’s Mr. McIlroy or anybody else, is substantially under par, it’s perfectly all right with us.”
It’s also just fine with Westwood, one of the golfers not pining for a harder course after his three straight birdies on the back nine Saturday. For him, all that red on the leaderboard is a refreshing U.S. Open change.
“Yeah, nice to see. They set the golf course up great,” Westwood said. “You play well, you shoot good scores. There’s no tricks to this one. It’s a fair, honest course.”
But it’s also a course that had to wait 33 years between U.S. Opens until the tournament returned in 1997 and then 14 years until this one. After this week, it’s tough to figure when the USGA might decide to come back.
“It’s our position that the golf course was more forgiving this week because of the weather that we experienced,” O’Toole said. “Not because Congressional is not a worthy golf course for the U.S. Open. It’s a big, long, difficult golf course. These players caught it on a week when it’s very soft.”