US Open’s mojo -- fear or frivolity?
What will Shinnecock show?
by M. James Ward
SOUTHAMPTON, NY. When the 117th US Open was drawing to a close the grimaces were not on the faces of the players -- they were on the faces of officials from the United State Golf Association (USGA). Anticipating daily winds the fairways at Erin Hills were kept especially wide -- giving players more latitude to hit drivers with impunity. Coupled with recent rains the course played docile-like and eventual champion Brooks Koepka finished with an amazing -16 total -- equaling the most under par for the championship -- set in 2011 when Rory McIlroy won the event by eight shots at rain-ravaged Congressional.
In recent years the US Open has lost the edge in being the most demanding and most pain-inflicting event on the golfing calendar. With the exception of Bethpage Black in 2002 and 2009 and the events held at Oakmont in 2007 and 2016 -- the upper hand has moved noticeably to the player's side.
I can remember as a 17-year-old attending the 1974 US Open with my father at Winged Foot. The memories are seared into my brain. I watched professionals face a course in no mood to tolerate the least made error. The final winning total was seven over par and even the winner Hale Irwin looked like a punch drunk boxer. Many of the professionals howled long and loud claiming the USGA was out to embarrass them. The late former USGA President Frank "Sandy" Tatum countered with an epic retort -- "We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world," the chairman of the USGA's competition committee declared that day. "We're simply trying to identify who they are."
This year's event at Shinnecock Hills marks a delicate dance for the USGA. It's been 14 years in returning to the storied Long island club. Between 1986 and 2004 the club hosted three US Opens. But the debacle at the 2004 event left many to wonder what the USGA was thinking in not watering sufficiently several of the greens -- most notably the tilted 7th green. In the final round in 2004 no player bested par. The greens were fried -- just like the players -- and the egg was being wiped off the faces of the USGA for the train wreck they created.
Not long after the results were known at Erin Hills the USGA reassessed the set-up strategy for Shinnecock and opted to move away from fairways in the range of 60 yards wide. Unlike the earlier Opens in 1986, 1995 and 2004 which featured fairway widths in the range of 26 yards, the 2018 event will be in the range of 40-42 yards wide. The USGA saw the folly in giving players added width because the penalties for mishits was not sufficiently deterring players from simply going full tilt from the tee.
The re-establishment of accuracy is something the USGA is determined to demonstrate at Shinnecock Hills. The modern professional game has seen a clear major move towards power players. Those able to hit drives exceptionally long distances still shoot very low scores because rough is anything but the true meaning of what it should be. The balancing act of fairness for the USGA has meant players have too much leeway in opting for power with little worry about misses.
The fairways are wider for this year's event than in previous host roles but the length and depth of the rough just off the fairways is meant to reintroduce a fear component. US Opens for many years had a fear producing impact. Players realized that quality driving -- length with accuracy -- had to be delivered in order to score well. Unfortunately, world-class professionals have grown accustomed to host courses allowing them greater liberty -- not less.
The key for Shinnecock will be if wind and firmness are front and center. Weather forecasts for the balance of the championship look dry with wind making its presence felt at times. The key for the USGA is making sure that when pushing the course to the edge they do not go over it. The 2004 shadow looms large. The line between sanity and insanity is a hard one to pin down and players have a tendency to whine with the least bit of discomfort. The theater of the championship will be impacted by the quality of the leaderboard. Jack Nicklaus was famous in saying he enjoyed hearing the comments when entering the locker room as players complained vociferously about the over-the-top presentation. The Golden Bear took such comments in stride and realized those who had talked themselves out of competing were one less golfer he needed to worry about when the event started.
The US Open is the only time the USGA and world-class professionals operate under the same roof. What the players see as "fair" and how the USGA views matters can be vastly different. The preparation for Shinnecock has meant significant yardage gains to just over 7,400 yards. The USGA has wisely decided to provide for closely mown areas off a number of the greens. Players who are too aggressive or slightly off line will need to show great dexterity in recovery situations. Those finding the rough will be in for a painful lesson – as it should be.
Sowing fear into the minds of players comes from having the seeds of doubt germinate. The players are keenly aware that the stakes for this week's event are quite rightly extremely high. Patience can be in short supply. Winning the US Open can be both a physical and mental grind. Getting into the heads of the best players in the world is what made earlier US Opens noteworthy. Golf should not have such a rigorous examination each week, but a US Open title is far more than who can hit the ball the furthest. Finding the appropriate balance between outright fear and utter frivolity will be the test. The 14-year wait is now over – it's time to see if lessons learned from 2004 have truly been learned. A US Open title should mean nothing less than total command of all shots with accuracy being a central star in a leading role.We shall see.