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Pebble Beach gives the USGA an opportunity to stay out of its own way

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – In November 2014, Donald Trump took the stage at the PGA of America’s annual meeting in New York with a predictably blunt assessment.

“You people have a problem with the media,” said Trump, who was still months away from his march to the White House.

 Five years later, that same line applies to another governing body: the USGA.

A U.S. Open at Pebble Beach is always special, but this week’s championship has taken on a more meaningful and urgent feel following a collection of setup miscues and rules gaffes in recent years.

“It is not lost on us this is an important week, not only for golf, but this is an important week for the USGA,” said Mike Davis, the enigmatic executive director of the USGA.

To Davis’ credit, the USGA has (largely) decided to take the high road when it comes to the ongoing rift between the rule makers and the game’s best players. And the association is willing to acknowledge the criticism its faced.

“There's been ups and downs over the years,” Davis acknowledged. “We're excited about this week. To come to a place like Pebble Beach is just magnificent.”

It’s easy to be excited about a Pebble Beach Open. This is the sixth time the national championship has been played along the Monterey Bay, with each edition producing the kind of drama and the type of champion that makes for a memorable major. But Davis’ optimism goes well beyond established history and idyllic views.

This is a chance at some much-needed redemption.

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It was in the body language of Davis and John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships, as they spoke with the media on the eve of this year’s championship.

Bodenhamer, who took over for Davis as the association’s top setup man this year, waded through Wednesday’s press conference with an admirable attention to detail. 

With his signature aplomb and patience, he addressed questions about rough height, hole locations and even the growing characteristics of Poa annua, the uniquely-challenging putting surface that has been compared to broccoli. But if all goes well,  perhaps Davis, Bodenhammer and the USGA as a whole can get out from under the media microscope.

For the sake of the championship, and for an organization in desperate need of a narrative change, the 119th U.S. Open is an opportunity to mend fences and prove that they are truly listening.

Among golf’s major championships, the U.S. Open has always operated closer to the edge than the others. It’s the nature of what the championship has always claimed to be – golf’s most demanding test. That philosophy, by definition, requires that officials like Davis and Bodenhamer toe a fine line between demanding and disaster.

On Saturday last year at Shinnecock Hills, that line was crossed during the third round, when the wind blew a bit too hard and turned some greens into glass. Players pushed back. In 2017, it was the uncharacteristically wide fairways at Erin Hills that drew players’ ire, while at Oakmont in 2016, it was a horribly handled penalty dangling over the head of Dustin Johnson in the final round. There were greens in 2015 that had more dirt than grass at Chambers Bay. Even the much-anticipated return to Merion in 2013 was marred by a presentation players considered more tricked up than set up.

The common theme throughout all of these miscues has always been that they were entirely self-inflicted.

The problems at Chambers Bay and Erin Hills should have been anticipated; the ruling at Oakmont could have been streamlined and simplified; and the greens at Shinnecock Hills, well, there’s a reason they call it a forecast.

But at Pebble Beach, the association already has a canvas with a masterpiece of an outline. All the USGA has to do is color inside the lines. This course has hosted a PGA Tour event since 1947, and the five previous U.S. Opens here created a clear blueprint.

If the USGA can stay out of its own way, Pebble Beach is a gift at the most crucial of moments.

“If they can't redeem themselves at Pebble Beach, then there could be a problem,” said Rory McIlroy, who is among the more level-headed players when it comes to complaining.

And it’s just not the venue that gives Davis hope that the snafus will stop this week. Within USGA circles, Bodenhamer is considered an inspired choice to take over setup duties, and in March, the association hired Tour winner Jason Gore to serve as a liaison between the game’s best players and its rule makers.

On Wednesday, Bodenhamer talked of contingency plans and “safeguard protocols” depending on the weather, like an option to syringe greens between waves on Thursday and Friday to keep from killing the grass.

“We looked at what happened at Shinnecock last year. We dug deep into that. We understand it. We didn't have enough water on the greens on the back nine last year, simple as that,” Bodenhamer said. “We've got safeguards in place this year. No guarantees. There are no promises. But we feel good about the plan. We feel good about the strategy going in.”

The USGA certainly has a problem with the media and players at the moment, but it also has an opportunity at Pebble Beach to begin to change the narrative.