SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – It’s a bomber’s golf course. It’s a second-shot layout. The fairways are wide, greens firm. There’s a short list of would-be winners; parity has made this a wide-open Open.
This Shinnecock Hills Open, the fifth played on the east-end jewel, is a litany of questions without answers.
If history is any indication, the 118th edition will be something closer to what we expect from America’s national championship. This has all the markings of being your father’s Open – tough pars, tall rough and attrition.
In 2004, the last time the U.S. Open made it this far up the Long Island Expressway, the winning score was 4 under par, and in ’95 Corey Pavin played in a perfect U.S. Open manner on his way to an even-par victory.
This week’s championship may promise to be something more familiar – something more punitive – than the last few experiments, but it doesn’t clearly identify a favorite.
Fresh off his dominant performance last week in Memphis, Dustin Johnson has gotten the nod from Las Vegas, starting the week as the betting favorite for all the right reasons. But that nod ignores the current competitive landscape.
According to world ranking math, six players could be ranked No. 1 on Monday – Johnson (the current No. 1), Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy – depending on how things play out over the next four days.
To put that in context, when the U.S. Open was last played at Shinnecock Hills in ’04, Tiger Woods was No. 1 and would remain there, unchallenged for the next four months.
In ’04, the gap between the first- and second-ranked players (Woods and Ernie Els, respectively) was 1.91 average ranking points; and the gulf between Woods and the sixth-ranked player (Mike Weir) was 6.24 average ranking points.
Johnson’s current lead over No. 2 Thomas is a razor-thin .29 average ranking points; and DJ’s advantage over No. 6 McIlroy is just 2.22 points.
Rarely in golf can parity be so clearly quantified, and rarely has the competitive congestion led to a collective confidence.
“The only reason I'm here is to win. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have signed up,” said Brooks Koepka, last year’s champion. “I think everyone here is trying to win. Everyone thinks they're going to win, and they should. When you come to a golf tournament, you're preparing to win. You're not going to be satisfied with second place. I don't think I've ever heard anybody say, ‘Man, I'm glad I finished second.’”
The list of potential champions goes as deep into the tee sheet as one’s imagination. But what kind of test awaits this week’s field?
The 2004 championship at Shinnecock Hills is widely considered a bust in terms of set up for the USGA. A golf course that was already on the edge tumbled into the unplayable abyss on Sunday when even well-played tee shots on the par-3 seventh hole began bounding hopelessly into one bad spot after another.
“It's a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree and then making it carnival golf,” said Phil Mickelson, runner-up at Shinnecock Hills in ’04 who might be the week’s most compelling story line with the career Grand Slam hanging in the balance. “It's a very fine line, and it's not a job I would want. And I know that the USGA is doing the best they can to find that line, and a lot of times they do, and sometimes they cross over it.”
Following what some considered Open Light last year at Erin Hills – where Koepka won at 16 under – and in 2015 at Chambers Bay, many envisioned this championship a perfect pathway back to something more familiar. Golf’s toughest test, as the U.S. Open is considered in most circles, had become a bit too user friendly.
Shinnecock Hills is a classic design with all the central elements of a demanding test, from aches of knee-high fescue rough to wildly pitched greens that leave little, if any, room for error.
“I'm obviously not that old, but when I watched U.S. Opens on TV and saw these long, narrow corridors of narrow fairways and thick rough, that's what I was used to at a U.S. Open,” McIlroy said. “If you look at the venues that are coming up, they're very traditional venues, venues like Oakmont, Winged Foot, Pebble Beach. Maybe you'll see more of what we perceive as a traditional U.S. Open setup.”
Shinnecock Hills certainly fits into the notion that the USGA is gravitating back toward something closer to the association’s original DNA, but if this week’s championship is a chance to put some teeth back into the game’s toughest test the appetite for that kind of pendulum swing seems to be lacking.
Mike Davis, the association’s executive director, has been outspoken on this front. There will not be a sequel to the fiasco that defined the ’04 U.S. Open this week. Technology will help, with the USGA no longer relying on the inexact science of a Stimpmeter to measure firmness, and the USGA’s modus operandi under Davis has been to err on the side of the player, not protecting par.
“I've never, since I've been at the USGA and it's been almost 30 years, heard anybody say we're shooting for even par. Never heard it. I know people think we talk about it, but it's never happened,” Davis said. “But we talk about incessantly how do we get the course to be really a great test of golf? As we say, get all 14 clubs dirty.”
What that means for this week’s field is anyone’s guess, but then that seems to be the status quo at a U.S. Open with more questions than answers.