Note to the USGA: It’s time to stop trying to micro-manage the U.S. Open. Certainly not Shinnecock Hills.
I’m not talking about the infrastructure of what amounts to a football stadium for a week – traffic, spectators, the media and the all-important parking. Someone has to do that planning, and the professionals on staff at Golf House pretty much know their way around that stuff.
I’m talking about the art and science of setting up the golf course. All week we heard and saw evidence that the USGA field staff and the crew under Superintendent Jonathan Jennings had matters in hand in terms of the layout. As it turns out, the golf course held up well in terms of turf quality and consistency. The greens kept their cover, and for surfaces that were 60-70 percent Poa annua rolled well, even if there was the occasional, unavoidable bumpiness. Even when things got dicey Saturday afternoon, the putting surfaces held up well in terms of roll.
The problem, once again, was not with the agronomy but with the setup of some of the hole locations. Three bad cup placements - on the 13th, 14th and 15th holes - proved susceptible to winds twice as hard as anticipated that afternoon.
Brooks Koepka, who successfully defended his U.S. Open title, was among the players who did not give in to the wave of negativity about the course that started with Zach Johnson’s comments Saturday afternoon that the USGA “lost” the golf course. It gets tiring listening to these guys forget that working for a $12-million purse is supposed to be hard work. They have come to expect flawless, predictable uniformity week after week and expect that from the USGA as well. They were joined by too many journalists who are not sufficiently skilled in the nuances of course design and agronomy and who are looking for something controversial to write or comment about.
The real issue is that modern championship golf exists at a level that involves sheer power, extreme technical skill and precision, with very little slack in the system for uncertainty. When you’re cutting plant tissue down to under one-tenth of an inch (0.095-inch, to be precise) you have very little wiggle room. Unlike other championship sites like Augusta National Golf Club and Oakmont Country Club that are kept on the edge, Shinnecock Hills sits on a sand base. It drains more quickly and is prone to more varied winds than those two venues.
The power and precision that golf athletes rely upon affords them considerable mastery over their playing field. If you think about golf as a sport with offense and defense, the simple way to put it is that the precarious balance of power between offensive skills (distance, accuracy) threatens each week to overwhelm the protection afforded architects and superintendents through their means of defense via ground contour, distance and surface speed.
The USGA effectively failed to get ahead of the players and equipment manufacturers in bottling up the technology of the power game. They are now reduced to trying to reign in the advantages of skilled players, and they are doing it with course setups that allow for precious little flex. All it takes is a turn in the weather or a mistake of three feet in a hole location and you see the absence of any slack in the defensive system.
USGA field staff members compensated on Sunday for their mistakes of Saturday by watering down the course and using sensible, middle-of the green hole locations most of the way. The results were striking. Ricky Fowler went from 84 Saturday to 65 Sunday. The average score dropped three shots: 75.3 to 72.2. There were only two scores under par Saturday. On Sunday, there were 15, including Tommy Fleetwood’s 63, only the sixth in U.S. Open history.
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It should not have been that hard to let the players play golf. Yet Shinnecock Hills makes that difficult because structurally, the golf course does not provide much margin for error in setup.
The club did a phenomenal job since 2004 in reclaiming its old William Flynn-designed layout of 1931. Trees came down to expose alternative lines of play, though this also allowed more ambient wind to come through. The native roughs were restored. Fairways were widened out to something approximating their intended shape. But it’s the green expansion that ironically proved a problem, because greens were pushed back out from 5,500 square feet on average to 7,000 square feet. Those reclaimed areas transitioned into much larger peripheral rollouts. Low-mow areas replaced dense rough that had surrounded the greens. That meant that marginal shots rolled out and away more than ever, exaggerating the effects of wayward approaches.
Davis extolled the green expansion work, claiming that it provided "25-to-30 percent" more hole locations. But the process of the greens reclamation included areas that had been built up over the years with sand splash from greenside bunkers and that had distorted or raised some of the original green surfaces. Ironically, the newfound flexibility of setup brought those areas closer into play, effectively reducing the margin of error for the setup team.
Just ask Phil Mickelson, who obviously made a point on Saturday at the 13th hole of registering his displeasure with the setup. In doing do, he made a mockery of the rules. USGA returned serve by making a mockery of a ruling in punishing him only two strokes for hitting a moving ball (Rule 14-5) when they could have invoked Rule 1-2 and disqualified him for his breach.
It will be interesting to see how the club and the USGA move forward in prepping for the 2026 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Having more precise measurement techniques for setup – firmness meters, moisture level monitors, Stimpmeter readings – won't solve the problem without more common sense. It would help if course setup highlighted the complexity and intrigue of playing surfaces and hazards without regard for score. You cannot prevent the world’s best players from scoring well – unless you squeeze the life out of the golf course.