SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – For two days there was harmony at the 118th U.S. Open. The USGA presented a demanding test. Players, however, insisted it was fair.
Thursday was a grind, with a relative par of 76.47 thanks to an exacting golf course and winds that threatened to torpedo the championship’s return to the East End of Long Island, but cooler heads prevailed.
The USGA softened the setup and the collective took a deep breath. Nothing to see here.
It wasn’t until the early groups on Saturday made the turn under bright sunny skies and a building breeze that things began to go wrong. Putts that had been challenging suddenly became impossible and greens that had been on the slower side of the normal U.S. Open threshold began to turn a muted brown.
It was happening again, the ghosts from 14 years ago echoing across the rolling layout like an alarm. It was 2004 all over again.
“They've lost the golf course,” Zach Johnson told Sky Sports. “When you have a championship that comes down to sheer luck, that's not right.”
Replace Johnson with Kevin Stadler or J.J. Henry and it was as if the entire championship had been transported back to the ’04 U.S. Open, when these same rolling greens turned crusty and then cruel.
On that Sunday 14 years ago, Stadler and Henry were the first group off and their adventure on the seventh green added up to a dozen collective strokes and led the USGA to break out the hoses, but it was too late.
USGA CEO Mike Davis called that day a “double bogey” in the association’s history. At last year’s U.S. Open when he was asked about the 2004 championship, he said, “That will not happen again. If it does, I’m retiring.”
Shinnecock Hills hasn’t quite bottomed out like it did in 2004, but it’s close.
“Maybe they got more wind than they thought they’d get,” Brendan Steele said. “The course was fair the first two days, today I thought it was getting sketchy.”
Steele wasn’t alone in his assessment of Saturday’s set up miscue.
“They lost the golf course today, certainly on the back nine,” said Henrik Stenson, who was alone in sixth place at 5 over par.
Unlike 2004 when the primary concern was the seventh green, on Saturday it was the 13th and 15th greens, which featured hole locations cut on knobs and dangerously close to the edge.
“When you have L wedge in your hand and you hit to the spot you want to and you almost make the putt and it blows of the green 20 yards, it starts to become a point where, 'Did these guys screw up? Did they not see this coming?'” said Pat Perez of his episode on the 15th hole. “The pin didn’t have to be where it was.”
Brooks Koepka, who is 18 holes away from winning his second consecutive U.S. Open, had a similar adventure on the 15th hole when his approach trickled into a greenside bunker.
“I don't have anything nice to say about that green [No. 15] and the pin location, so I'm just not going to say it,” said Koepka, who is tied for the lead at 3 over.
There will be those who say this is nothing more than typical players carping and that the play-for-pay types simply need to toughen up. But that ignores just how bad things got on Saturday and the facts.
The USGA’s own weather forecast called for gusts to 20 mph and warm, dry conditions, and yet the association rolled the dice with what turned out to be borderline hole locations.
“There were some aspects today where well-executed shots were not rewarded. We missed it with the wind,” Davis said. “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.”
Officials made similar comments in 2004 when these same greens became crispy, but by then it was too late. Fourteen years ago play was suspended during the final round and crews were called in to water certain putting surfaces between groups, but the damage was done.
It was a dark moment for the USGA that Davis and Co. have spent the last decade trying to untangle, which makes Saturday’s miscues so surprising. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not again, not like this with the technology officials had available to them.
Unlike in ’04, officials have an opportunity for a real-time mea culpa, a chance to salvage a week that started with so much, but it won’t be easy. Sunday’s forecast is similar to what it was for Round 3, which means the options are limited. Crews were already starting to water greens as the day’s final group made the turn and Davis was clear on how he planned to ease up on the final day’s set up.
“The message was loud and clear to the grounds staff and to our team that handles the agronomy part of it is that let's slow the course down. We must slow the course down tonight, and we will,” Davis said. “That probably means more water applied and just making sure the greens are right.”
There had been a steady drumbeat since last year’s championship, which was won by Koepka with a potentially embarrassing 16-under total, that the championship had lost its way and veered too far in favor of the player. Saturday’s show may have struck a more traditional tone, but at what cost?
“Be careful what you wish for. We've all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week,” said Justin Rose, who is a stroke off the lead.
Maybe this was an over-reaction to what happened last year at Erin Hills or maybe it was simply an unthinkable lapse in judgment, either way the challenge now is making sure Sunday isn’t a sequel of what happened in 2004.