U.S. Open

U.S. Open 2019: What the USGA’s critics get wrong

By John Feinstein
On the Tuesday prior to the start of the 1998 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, I walked with Tom Watson and Fred Couples during a practice round. The two men often played practice rounds together prior to majors, and I had learned that walking with them helped give me a fascinating player’s perspective on the course. Plus, it was fun. Couples had a way of relaxing Watson that brought out the Hall of Famer’s sneaky sense of humour.

As we walked down the 17th fairway on a bright, beautiful San Francisco afternoon, Couples turned to Watson and said, “Hey Tommy. If I offered you even par right now, would you take it?” Watson grinned. “In a heartbeat,” he answered. “Give me even par around here for four days and I’m the winner.”

He was close. Had Watson shot even par for four days that week, he would have played off with Lee Janzen, who beat Payne Stewart by one shot to win his second U.S. Open.

“Does that mean you don’t like the course?” I asked Couples after he’d hit his second shot at 17. Couples shook his head. “No, I love it,” he said. “But you can bet there will be lots of complaining about balls running off fairways into the rough.”

He paused. “Look, I don’t see anything wrong with playing one major championship, heck one tournament nowadays, where even par is a great score. That’s the U.S. Open. We all know it when we get here, so why complain?”

Which is why I come here on Monday of another U.S. Open week not to bury the USGA, but to defend it. Someone’s got to do it.

Has the USGA made plenty of mistakes in golf course set up through the years? Absolutely. If you’re going to try to make a course truly difficult, you’re going to make mistakes.

“We know we push our courses to the edge,” then USGA executive director David Fay said after the first Shinnecock Hills debacle in 2004. “Yesterday, we went over the edge. We screwed up.”

That wasn’t the first time—or the last.

During that ’98 Open at Olympic, the hole location on the 18th green on Friday was a disaster, with players watching helplessly as putts rolled back to their feet. Things finally reached the height of black golf comedy when the normally reasonable Kirk Triplett, stopped the ball with his putter as it rolled back to him—a harbinger, as it turned out of what Phil Mickelson would do in reverse at Shinnecock 20 years later.

Everyone knows that Shinnecock in ’04 was a Sunday to forget because the USGA didn’t water the greens overnight. More recently, there have been other issues: the greens at Chambers Bay in 2015 were inconsistent for a national championship; Erin Hills in 2017 had uncharacteristically highway-wide fairways that upset many; and USGA officials somehow didn’t calculate for afternoon winds on Saturday at Shinnecock last year, leading to the Mickelson’s meltdown on the 13th hole, when he hit his moving ball on the putting green.

There was also the Dustin Johnson mess at Oakmont in 2016, when Johnson was first told he wasn’t penalized after his ball moved on the fifth green, then told he MIGHT be penalized when after the round and finally WAS penalized. The only thing that prevented a complete catastrophe was Johnson keeping his cool to win by four shots and then, after the penalty, three shots.

So, when players blast the USGA—some on the record, some behind anonymity—they’re right, right?

Yes. And no.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images USGA CEO Mike Davis’ initial changes to how he set up U.S. Open courses drew praise.

Here’s the no: Even though USGA CEO Mike Davis denies it, the USGA is trying to protect par. However, as Couples pointed out, there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s worth remembering that when Davis took over the U.S. Open setup duties from Tom Meeks in 2006, he was lauded for changes he made. Davis employed the concept of graduated rough, changing the long-standing Open tradition that if you missed a fairway by a foot, you were penalized just as harshly as if you missed it by 20 yards—sometimes less so if you found trampled down grass outside the ropes.

Davis also integrated reachable par 4s at most venues to spice up the courses from a strategic standpoint, as well as moving tees forward and backward between round—sometimes as much as 100 yards. Some players found this dizzying—which was Davis’ point, to make golfers have to think as they worked their way around the course. Davis probably did get too far over his skis at Chambers Bay, however, when he played the 18th hole as a par 4 twice and as a par 5 twice.

What’s important is this: Davis was trying, trying to hear the players’ complaints, trying to move the U.S. Open into the 21st century, trying to let people know exactly what the USGA was doing on a daily basis during the Open.

RELATED: How Pebble Beach became the USGA’s crown jewel

If you ask the green jackets at Augusta National the speed of their greens, they’ll look at you as if you just asked them to supply you with tax records for the entire membership. Even Kerry Haigh, the much-praised setup man for the PGA of America dodges the question: “The greens will be at PGA Championship speed,” is his stock answer.

Davis told people before the Open began the green speeds he wanted and then reported what they were to the public—and, more importantly, the players—each morning.

In reading the recent Golf Digest piece in which 57 people in golf were granted anonymity to talk frankly about the USGA, I found it fascinating that they revealed there was serious discussion about a boycott after Oakmont in 2016. Were they finally fed up with setup mistakes? Were they demanding more transparency, or were they just appalled by the Johnson mess?

No. It was—surprise—also a lot to do with money. The players thought they should be getting more money than they were getting after the new FOX contract provided the USGA with a financial windfall. The total prize money at Oakmont was $10 million, with Johnson getting $1.8 million.

Maybe the USGA could have dispersed more of the FOX money (it did raise the prize money in 2015, and a year after Oakmont in 2017 and has done so again in 2019) but it was fascinating that not one player quoted said, “They should give more money to The First Tee or getting more minorities into golf.” Or, to charities in general. It was, “make us rich guys richer.”

I give Justin Thomas credit for criticizing the USGA earlier this year on the record, saying he opposed many of the new rules changes and that the USGA should set up courses for the Open the way the PGA Tour does for weekly events. I credit him for honesty and for not hiding behind anonymity.

And I completely disagree with him.

The majors are supposed to be different. One reason why the PGA Championship is the fourth of the four majors is because it is the one most like a regular PGA Tour event. I’m not saying that critically, it’s just a fact.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Thomas has been upfront about his issues with the new Rules of Golf and U.S. Open course setups.

The USGA was criticised—correctly—at Erin Hills because Brooks Koepka’s winning score was 16 under par and scores in the 60s abounded all week. Rory McIlroy also shot 16 under at Congressional in 2011, but he won by eight shots and only 20 players broke par (31 did so at Erin Hills). Of course Davis’ “we’re not worried about defending par” comment sort of goes out the window when one realizes the USGA abandoned Congressional after the 2011 championship. And you won’t be buying any ticket packages for Erin Hills anytime in the near future, either.

The USGA has no interest in setting up a golf course like a PGA Tour event. It wants the Open to be a different challenge. As Couples noted all those years ago, it’s supposed to be hard.

There’s no doubt the USGA has made it easy for critics by making the mistakes that it has made. As Fay said, you push any golf course to the edge, there’s potential to go over that edge.

That’s what happened on Saturday at Shinnecock a year ago. Davis miscalculated how much the afternoon winds at the eastern edge of Long Island would affect some of his hole locations. He was attacked—justifiably—for that error. And he also owned up to it after the round.

All that did not excuse what Mickelson did on the 13th green, chasing down a wayward putt and hitting it while it was still in motion. Mickelson then said after the round he figured he was better off with a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball than letting the ball roll of the green.

For whatever reason, the USGA didn’t disqualify him—which the association had every right to do, and perhaps even an obligation to after Mickelson explained how he broke a rule intentionally.

And yet in the Digest piece many players defended or applauded Mickelson for his action. Forget the fact that 66 other players dealt with the setup without blatantly breaking a rule. It’s worth remembering that Mickelson shot 77-69 the first two days when no one was complaining about setup and was among the earlier starters on Saturday. If he had made par at 13—instead of making a 10 with the two-shot penalty—he still would have shot 75. Tough to blame that on the setup.

Even caddies got into the act in the Digest piece. One complained about a walking rules official reminding him on the first tee to make sure there were only 14 clubs in the bag. “I need him to tell me how to do my job?” the caddie asked rhetorically, and with plenty of angst.

Well, it can’t hurt. Ask Ian Woosnam, who started the last round of the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s tied for the lead and birdied the first hole only to have that two turned into a four when he discovered that caddie Myles Byrne had 15 clubs in the bag.

Or, ask Dustin Johnson, who might have won the PGA Championship in 2010 if a PGA of America official had reminded him that, under a local rule at Whistling Straits, his ball was in a bunker on the 18th hole on Sunday—regardless of the garbage and the footprints in the sandy area.

My point is this: There are certainly moments when the USGA deserves every bit of criticism it receives. But I know the staff is trying. I’ve walked with Davis in the past while he did setups, and I know how much thought he always put into that job—and how much he loved it. The fact that he gave it up to John Bodenhamer after Shinnecock is proof that he desperately wants to do what’s best for the Open.

Will there be whining this week at Pebble Beach before a single ball is struck? Of course, that’s as much a part of the U.S. Open tradition as fast greens, tough hole locations and high scores.

To paraphrase Couples: Once a year, there’s nothing wrong with that.

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