It happened again.
It was an inexplicable turn of events after a decade and a half of vehement assurances that this U.S. Open would be different. In the months leading up to the 118th championship, USGA CEO Mike Davis explained that this time the technology was better and many contended that the association was better.
In 2004, the last time the U.S. Open traveled to the East End of Long Island things didn’t go well, with Shinnecock Hills’ greens going dark and dusty for a final round Davis called a “double bogey” for the association.
To be fair, last week’s sequel wasn’t that extreme - let’s call it a bogey - but it was no less baffling.
“It’s more the course, about how they set it up. Because Saturday was a total, it was like two different golf courses, practically, on the greens Saturday versus Sunday,” Jason Day said of last week’s U.S. Open. “I just wish they would leave it alone and just let it go. Not saying to let the greens go and let them dry out and make it unfair, I’m just saying plan accordingly and hopefully whatever the score finishes, it finishes, whether it’s under par or over par.”
There will be those who contend that Day and Co. - Ian Poulter was also a harsh critic - should simply toughen up, that demanding conditions are the price that must be paid if you want to win the U.S. Open. But that ignores the facts and the USGA’s own assessment.
“There were some aspects today where well-executed shots were not rewarded. We missed it with the wind,” Davis said on Saturday. “We don’t want that. The firmness was OK but it was too much with the wind we had. It was probably too tough this afternoon – a tale of two courses.”
The USGA missed it, again.
Perhaps this is the cost of wanting to play a golf course on the razor’s edge, where just a few warm gusts define the line between demanding but fair and over the top. Or maybe this is an issue of continuity.
Every year the R&A holds a championship and nearly every year we spend the days afterward celebrating a champion, not complaining about an unfair course or an incorrect weather forecast.
There are philosophical differences between the USGA and R&A when it comes to golf course setup, with our transatlantic friends wired to accept relatively easier conditions if the wind doesn’t blow. But maybe the R&A gets it right more often than not because each year they deal with a known quantity.
There are currently nine courses (assuming Turnberry returns to the fold some day) in the Open Championship rotation. The R&A will add Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which last hosted the championship in 1951, to that rotation next year, .
Perhaps the R&A has been able to avoid the kind of setup snafus that have plagued the USGA in recent years (let’s not forget the substandard greens at Chambers Bay in 2015 or the last-minute landscaping in ’17 at Erin Hills) because they know, through decades of trial and error, what happens at Royal Troon when the winds gust from the North and what hole locations should never be used on the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Similarly, the folks who run the Masters regularly get it right. They get everything right, from course setup to parking regardless of inclement weather or extreme conditions, because they’ve had eight decades to figure it out.
Only the PGA Championship travels like the U.S. Open, but then the PGA of America’s setup philosophy is more in line with that of normal PGA Tour events, with officials regularly erring on the side of the player, not some notion that par must be protected.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with the U.S. Open that a more standardized rotation couldn’t cure. If, for example, the USGA were to follow the R&A’s lead and set a dance card of eight to 10 regular stops for the national championship they could create the kind of continuity and institutional knowledge that seems to work so well at the Open Championship.
What if Shinnecock Hills, which is among the best venues for the U.S. Open regardless of the setup miscues of ’04 and ’18, hosted the championship every decade? Officials would have a chance to better understand what works and what doesn’t, from golf course setup to traffic (which was just as bad as some of Saturday’s hole locations).
Pick your regulars, from Pebble Beach to Pinehurst, Winged Foot to Torrey Pines, create a rotation and learn whatever it takes to get it right once and for all.