SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Damage control began in the opening remarks.
Shinnecock Hills hosted one of the most embarrassing weekends in U.S. Open history when the tournament was last held here, in 2004. Dry conditions and devious officials combined to make the par-3 No. 7 virtually unplayable, and unfair, and unacceptable. The green could not hold approach shots. Only two golfers finished under par. Viewers watched normally even-keeled professionals lose their minds.
The tournament returns here June 14-17. With the controversy of 2004 in mind, Mike Davis, the CEO of the U.S. Golf Association, went on the defensive as he finished his opening remarks at media day on Monday. Davis realizes that the debacle at No. 7 is the lasting image for many golf fans of this grand old course off the Great Peconic Bay.
“You saw some well-executed shots actually being penalized. I can assure you that is not what the USGA wanted,” Davis said. “And so I would just say that it was 14 years ago. It was a different time. It was different people. And we as an organization, we learned from it.”
Well, they sort of learned from it. The USGA is noted for making tough courses absolutely hellish so as to provide “the ultimate test,” which is the de facto motto of the tournament.
And that’s the problem. The organization relies on weather reports and agronomy wizardry to push a course to the limits of fairness, and routinely the courses become unfair.
Which, despite Davis’ claim to the contrary, is exactly what the USGA wants. It is the U.S. Open brand.
Olympic Club’s rough in 1955 foiled Ben Hogan and, 43 years later, the greens there bit Payne Stewart. Winged Foot massacred the field in 1974 — nobody broke par in the first round and 7-over won it — and evil pin placements on two greens sullied the 2001 tournament at Southern Hills. Dustin Johnson’s botched birdie putt on the bumpy green at No. 18 at Chambers Bay disgraced that fine new course in its major championship debut in 2015.
But no set-up snafu resonated quite as loudly as the seventh hole at Shinnecock Hills in 2004. Television obsessed with the weekend’s conditions, when the surface had more in common with a pool table than a putting green. After the first few golfers went through on Sunday, the USGA began watering the green between groups, which was patently unfair to the golfers who dealt with the green at its worst.
Davis frantically watched the disaster unfold greenside, walkie-talkie in hand. He was the U.S. Open Championship director back then, so he had a part in the calamity.
“Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, what really happened then was just a lack of water,” he said Monday, but that wasn’t a complete explanation. The USGA blamed an unforeseen shift in the wind Sunday, which pushed balls from the front right of the green toward the back left, which is the natural slope of the green and therefore made putts roll even faster and made approach shots harder to control. Reports surfaced that the slick, crusty green was rolled on Saturday morning, which the golfers said the USGA ordered, though the USGA denied ordering it.
All of which spoiled an Open at one of America’s landmark courses. Less than three miles inland from Great Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Hills is broad-shouldered and windswept and undulated and roughed. It never needs to be manipulated.
Tom Meeks was responsible for the disaster in 2004, and remained in charge of course setups until 2005, when Davis became senior director of rules and competitions. Davis became the CEO in 2011 but still works in close concert with Jeff Hall, the current managing director for rules and Open championships. Davis essentially guaranteed that the USGA has foolproofed its practices so we’ll never see another problem like No. 7 in 2004.
“Nowadays we have got everything from firmness meters, we have got moisture meters in the greens. The meteorology is better, so we not only know where the winds are coming from but the velocities. And, frankly, there’s better communication between the USGA and the grounds staff,” Davis said. “When you set up a U.S. Open, it is golf’s ultimate test, it’s probably set up closer to the edge than any other event in golf. I think that the difference then versus now is … we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands.”
Well, all of that data was available at Chambers Bay in 2015, when several of the fescue greens withered during an unseasonably hot and dry spell. That would not have been an issue had the USGA not pushed the greens to the brink in the first place. The greens at Chambers Bay usually are not shaved like they were for the U.S. Open, and they usually putt fabulously well. Asked Monday if the greens at Chambers Bay should have been left alone in 2015, Hall replied, “I don’t know if that would have gotten us a different result.”
The organization clearly wants most of the field to finish over par as possible, despite Davis’ constant denials.
“We never go into it saying we want even par to win,” Davis said. “What we really do want to do is say, we want to test every aspect of their games.”
And then you can almost hear him cackle.
For 12 years after the shenanigans at Shinnecock Hills, the average winning score at the U.S. Open was 2.25-under par, and that included Rory McIlroy’s record 16-under at Congressional in 2011. More significant, though, an average of 0.25-over par took second place.
“We tend to get more complaints from the public when we have a low-scoring tournament,” Davis said Monday.
He must have been busy with disappointed fans for the past 11 months. Last year, Brooks Koepka won at Erin Hills with 16-under, which tied McIlroy. Other records: 31 sub-par finishes, 133 sub-par individual rounds, seven players finished double-digits under par, and Justin Thomas shot a record 9-under in the third round alone.
Rest assured, the USGA won’t let that happen again.