Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 19, 2017

Not All U.S. Opens Are Created Equal

A NOTE TO READERS:  As advised last week, this post was delayed by the Sunday evening finish of the U.S. Open Golf Championship.  The regular schedule resumes Thursday.

Just two years ago the USGA departed from its usual practice of holding the U.S. Open on a well-established golf course with significant tournament history, often including previous Opens. That experiment in the Pacific Northwest did not go well. Given that history, as well as the USGA’s twin debacles of mismanaged rules decisions at last year’s men’s and women’s Opens, the blue-blazered members of the American golf rules-setting body had to be feeling the pressure as this year’s Open played out on yet another unlikely venue in rural Wisconsin.

In 2015 the Open was played at Chambers Bay, on the shores of Puget Sound. The public course was less than ten years old and manifestly not yet ready to host an Open. Chambers Bay is a sprawling layout, but its many steep hills led the USGA to restrict spectator access on some holes for safety reasons. The result was sections of the golf course devoid of fans and the roars that normally punctuate a major championship. On television the treeless links looked like nothing so much as a moonscape, and player after player derided the bumpy greens. Rory McIlroy famously likened doing his job on them to trying to putt across heads of cauliflower.

Last year’s locations for both the Men’s and Women’s Opens returned to the traditional, but the headlines were as much about final round rules imbroglios, first with Dustin Johnson at Oakmont and then with Anna Nordqvist at CordeValle, as they were about the performances of the contenders. Between a course not ready for its moment in the sun and inexcusable rules snafus, the blue blazer crowd was reeling as players teed off at this year’s men’s Open on Thursday morning.

They did so at Erin Hills, a public course (to the extent that a $280 green fee counts as “public”) only a year older than Chambers Bay. The USGA granted this year’s Open to Erin Hills in 2010, just four years after the course opened, on the strength of the course’s length and appearance. Erin Hills can be stretched to more than 8,000 yards, and the mostly treeless eighteen is laid out over a rolling glacial moraine that is nature’s way of designing an inviting venue for golf. As play began USGA officials were surely hoping for a classic U.S. Open, with the top players in the world battling for the championship while having to play their very best to beat par.

Instead they got an unexpected revival of the Greater Milwaukee Open, a regular PGA Tour stop for more than four decades that was last played in 2009. The GMO was scheduled opposite the Open Championship, which meant that the world’s best players were always on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Like many weekly Tour stops it was also played on courses that the field could overpower, with the winning score regularly reaching well into double digits under par.

Erin Hills is thirty-five miles northwest of Milwaukee, and for most of the tournament it played not like a U.S. Open venue, but rather like one of the tracts that hosted the GMO over the years. Rickie Fowler led the way on Thursday with an opening 65, one of forty-four subpar scores on Day One. Forty-six players went low on Friday; and after the midway cut reduced the field to sixty-eight golfers, thirty-two, or nearly half the field, broke par in Saturday’s third round.

In part, the birdie fest can be blamed on the weather. Heavy overnight rains repeatedly softened up the course, and the winds that usually whip across the exposed layout failed to blow until Sunday. But one must also question the USGA’s wisdom in bringing the national championship to a course without enough history to reliably predict how it would play under various conditions. Even with gusts above 25 miles per hour on Sunday eighteen contestants broke par. Last year at Oakmont there were nineteen subpar rounds for the entire weekend.

Of course, even at a weekly Tour stop there are players who aren’t going to do well. Oddly enough, at Erin Hills that list was heavily weighted toward the best players in the world. On Thursday the top six players in the Official World Golf Rankings combined to shoot 21-over par. Most of them fared little better on Friday, and four of the six missed the cut. That number included Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, the rankings’ top three. That made the 2017 U.S. Open the first major since the rankings were instituted in which the world’s top three players all missed the cut.

Lacking in star power and playing out on a defenseless golf course, the weekend rounds felt like anything but a major championship. The lowest score in relation to par through 54 holes in U.S. Open history was Rory McIlroy’s 14-under at rain-soaked Congressional in 2011. By Saturday evening the next four places on that historical list were occupied by leader Brian Harman at 12-under and his three closest pursuers at Erin Hills. One of those was Justin Thomas, who ripped a 3-wood from the middle of the 18th fairway that settled seven feet from the hole, setting up a closing eagle on the par-5 that gave him a 9-under par score of 63. That broke the 44-year old record, set by Johnny Miller at Oakmont, for the lowest round in relation to par at the U.S. Open.

Thomas was unable to duplicate his Saturday magic in the final round, and he quickly fell out of contention with three bogeys in the first five holes. Harman’s one-shot lead disappeared even faster, as long-hitting Brooks Koepka started birdie-birdie in the penultimate pairing while Harman was scrambling to save pars in the final twosome. A close contest among Koepka, Harman, and Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood provided what little drama Sunday had to offer, and even that dissipated when the 27-year old Koepka ran off a string of three straight birdies starting on the 14th hole. As the final groups played the closing holes the only question was the size of his winning margin.

The eventual answer was four strokes, with Koepka at 16-under followed by Harman and Hideki Matsuyama at minus-12, Fleetwood at 11, and Fowler, Bill Haas, and Xander Schauffele all at 10-under par. The winner’s total matched McIlroy’s record for the most strokes under par in the history of our national golf championship. All of the others on that list posted totals that would have won all but two previous U.S. Opens and a few Greater Milwaukee Opens as well. The good news for golf fans is that the USGA has already set the venues for the next nine U.S. Opens, starting with historic Shinnecock Hills on Long Island next June, and there isn’t a Chambers Bay or an Erin Hills on the list.

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