Notes on a golf scorecard while figuring what I might reasonably shoot at Shinnecock Hills under U.S. Open conditions (I’m thinking 157) …
… The USGA can’t seem to get anything right when it comes to the U.S. Open.
Last year, American golf’s governing body made the setup at Open newbie Erin Hills too easy with 60-yard wide fairways, anticipating strong wins that never blew. The result: Brooks Koepka shot an un U.S. Open-like 16-under par to win, and 31 golfers broke par. This past week at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Koepka became just the seventh repeat champion in tournament history and first since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 with a 1-over 281.
In between, though, the USGA was criticized for making Saturday’s setup too hard, with too many pins cut too close to the sloping edges of Shinnecock’s greens. Then, recoiling from harsh words (Ian Poulter asked which “bozo” set up the course) the USGA went too far the other way, overwatering the greens and setting most of the pins in the middle of putting surfaces. I guess you could say it all balanced out, but the general consensus is the USGA screwed up again.
I am a paying member of the USGA. I believe the organization does a great amount of good to promote the game I love. But it seems incapable of avoiding controversy when it comes to the U.S. Open, a tournament that once had the highest stature in golf but has I believe for most golf fans been eclipsed by the Masters and British Open (PGA Championship, don’t even ask).
I am also a USGA critic. And, frankly, it’s an easier target than Shinnecock’s tiny, high-perched 11th green. The problem is that while people can enjoy the Masters whether the winning score is 15 under, as Patrick Reed shot this year, or 5 under, as Danny Willett shot in 2016, most everyone goes away happy. But the USGA tries to make even par or something close to it the winning score. The result is little margin for error on either side.
The past 14 years have resulted in some wildly varied yet balancing winning scores. Since 2005, even par or higher has won seven times, while under par has won seven times, including double digits under par twice (2017 and 2011, when Rory McIlroy also went 16 under at soggy Congressional).
Should the USGA give up and let players shoot 20 under? A highly unscientific Twitter poll I did early last week showed 73 percent want to see a U.S. Open winning score 3-5 under, 21 percent want even par or higher to win and only 6 percent want a PGA Tour-like birdie fest.
A tough but not ridiculously cruel U.S. Open should be the goal. The USGA can deliver that, but it needs to stop listening to the players, who want to be able to birdie every hole, and listen more to the groundskeepers at the host clubs who know their courses best.
… The other black eye at the U.S. Open was delivered by the man who will, apparently, never win one: Phil Mickelson. Lefty swatted a moving ball on the 13th green Saturday, the ignition point of a controversy that threatened to reduce Koepka’s remarkable repeat championship to ashes.
Mickelson said he used the rules to his advantage, knowing he’d be assessed a two-stroke penalty that he felt was better than letting the ball roll off the green. But Mickelson should have been disqualified under a catch-all rule that allows the tournament committee to send someone packing for a serious breach of the rules. Intentionally flaunting a rule as Mickelson did should count.
Some say, “It’s just Phil being Phil.” “It was funny.” I think Mickelson gets a pass with those people because he is so popular, a modern-day Arnold Palmer. What if the widely disliked Reed had done that? He would have been running from pitchforks.
It’s the U.S. Open, folks. Our national championship. Not mini-golf. You play by the rules, not play with them. Mickelson disrespected a game that holds honor in greater esteem than almost any other, in which players call penalties on themselves when no one else can see the infraction.
I have always liked Lefty. He regularly signs autographs for an hour or more after rounds. He plays an exciting brand of golf. He quietly donated his $81,720 in winnings from the 2006 Zurich Classic to Hurricane Katrina relief.
But Mickelson also often thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Saturday at Shinnecock he embarrassed both himself and the game with a stunt I don’t think he ever would attempt at Augusta National. There should have been a consequence for that more severe than two strokes.