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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Minjee Lee co-leads Walmart NW Arkansas Championship

By Associated PressJune 24, 2018, 12:25 am

ROGERS, Ark. - Minjee Lee wasn't all that concerned when she missed her first cut of the year this month at the ShopRite LPGA Classic.

The ninth-ranked Australian has certainly looked at ease and back in form at Pinnacle Country Club in her first event since then.

Lee and Japan's Nasa Hataoka each shot 6-under 65 on Saturday to share the second-round lead in the NW Arkansas Championship 13-under 129. Lee is chasing her fifth victory since turning pro three years ago. It's also an opportunity to put any lingering frustration over that missed cut two weeks ago behind her for good.

''I didn't particularly hit it bad, even though I missed the cut at ShopRite, I just didn't really hole any putts,'' Lee said. ''I'd been hitting it pretty solid going into that tournament and even into this tournament, too. Just to see a couple putts roll in has been nice.''

The 22-year-old Lee needed only 24 putts during her opening 64 on Friday, helping her to match the low round of her career. Despite needing 28 putts Saturday, she still briefly took the outright lead after reaching as low as 14 under after a birdie on the par-5 seventh.

Full-field scores from the Walmart Arkansas Championship

Lee missed the green on the par-4 ninth soon thereafter to lead to her only bogey of the day and a tie with the 19-year-old Hataoka, who is in pursuit of her first career win.

Hataoka birdied six of eight holes midway through her bogey-free round on Saturday. It was yet another stellar performance from the Japanese teenager, who has finished in the top 10 in four of her last five tournaments and will be a part of Sunday's final pairing.

''I try to make birdies and try to be under par, that's really the key for me to get a top ten,'' Hataoka said. ''Golf is just trying to be in the top 10 every single week, so that's the key.''

Third-ranked Lexi Thompson matched the low round of the day with a 64 to get to 11 under. She hit 17 of 18 fairways and shot a 5-under 30 on her opening nine, The American is in search of her first win since September in the Indy Women in Tech Championship.

Ariya Jutanugarn and Celine Boutier were 10 under.

First-round leader Gaby Lopez followed her opening 63 with a 75 to drop to 4 under. Fellow former Arkansas star Stacy Lewis also was 4 under after a 72.

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Henley will try to put heat on Casey in final round

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:55 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While it will be a tall task for anyone to catch Paul Casey at the Travelers Championship, the man who will start the round most within reach of the Englishman is Russell Henley.

Henley was in the penultimate group at TPC River Highlands on Saturday, but he’ll now anchor things during the final round as he looks to overcome a four-shot deficit behind Casey. After a 3-under 67, Henley sits at 12 under through 54 holes and one shot clear of the three players tied for third.

Henley closed his third round with a run of five straight pars, then became the beneficiary of a pair of late bogeys from Brian Harman that left Henley alone in second place.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“Could have made a couple more putts, but to end with two up-and-downs like that was nice,” Henley said. “I felt a little bit weird over the shots coming in, put me in some bad spots. But it was nice to have the short game to back me up.”

Henley has won three times on Tour, most recently at the 2017 Houston Open, and he cracked the top 25 at both the Masters and U.S. Open. But with Casey riding a wave of confidence and coming off an 8-under 62 that marked the best round of the week, he knows he’ll have his work cut out for him in order to nab trophy No. 4.

“I think I can shoot a low number on this course. You’ve got to make the putts,” Henley said. “I’m definitely hitting it well enough, and if I can get a couple putts to fall, that would be good. But I can’t control what he’s doing. I can just try to keep playing solid.”

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Back from back injury, Casey eyeing another win

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:36 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Given his four-shot cushion at the Travelers Championship and his recent victory at the Valspar Championship, it’s easy to forget that Paul Casey hit the disabled list in between.

Casey had to withdraw from The Players Championship because of a bad back, becoming the only player in the top 50 in the world rankings to miss the PGA Tour’s flagship event. He flew back to England to get treatment, and Casey admitted that his T-20 finish at last month’s BMW PGA Championship came while he was still on the mend.

“I wasn’t 100 percent fit with the back injury, which was L-4, L-5, S-1 (vertebrae) all out of place,” Casey said. “Big inflammation, nerve pain down the leg and up the back. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Thanks in large part to a combination of MRIs, back adjustments and anti-inflammatories, Casey finally turned the corner. His T-16 finish at last week’s U.S. Open was the first event for which he felt fully healthy since before the Players, and he’s on the cusp of a second title since March after successfully battling through the injury.

“We thought we were fixing it, but we weren’t. We were kind of hitting the effects rather than the cause,” Casey said. “Eventually we figured out the cause, which was structural.”

Casey started the third round at TPC River Highlands two shots off the lead, but he’s now four clear of Russell Henley after firing an 8-under 62 that marked the low round of the week.

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Bubba thinks he'll need a Sunday 60 to scare Casey

By Will GrayJune 23, 2018, 11:15 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Perhaps moreso than at most PGA Tour venues, a low score is never really out of reach at TPC River Highlands. Positioned as a welcome change of pace after the U.S. Open, the Travelers Championship offers a lush layout that often pushes the balance much closer to reward than risk.

This is where Jim Furyk shot a 58 on the par-70 layout two years ago – and he didn’t even win that week. So even though Paul Casey enters the final round with a commanding four-shot lead, there’s still plenty of hope for the chase pack that something special could be in store.

Count Bubba Watson among the group who still believe the title is up for grabs – even if it might require a Herculean effort, even by his standards.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Watson has won the Travelers twice, including in a 2015 playoff over Casey. But starting the final round in a large tie for sixth at 10 under, six shots behind Casey, he estimates that he’ll need to flirt with golf’s magic number to give the Englishman something to worry about.

“My 7 under yesterday, I need to do better than that. I’m going to have to get to like 10 [under],” Watson said. “The only beauty is, getting out in front, you have a chance to put a number up and maybe scare them. But to scare them, you’re going to have to shoot 10 under at worst, where I’m at anyway.”

Watson started the third round three shots off the lead, and he made an early move with birdies on Nos. 1 and 2 en route to an outward 32. The southpaw couldn’t sustain that momentum, as bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 turned a potential 65 into a relatively disappointing 67.

“Bad decision on the par-3, and then a very tough tee shot for me on 17, and it just creeped into the bunker,” Watson said. “Just, that’s golf. You have mistakes every once in a while.”