Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 18, 2018

Koepka Repeats (Good); So Does The USGA (Bad)

Since the United States Golf Association organized the first men’s U.S. Open in 1895, just seven players have won the tournament in back-to-back years. Four of those – Scotland’s Willie Anderson, who won three years in a row and four out of five in the first decade of the last century, John McDermott, the first American to win the national title, the immortal Bobby Jones, and the publicity-shy Ralph Guldahl – did so before the start of World War II.

Since then and until this weekend, only two more golfers had successfully defended a win at our Open, and no, neither of them was named Nicklaus or Woods. Rather it was Ben Hogan in 1950 at Merion and 1951 at Oakland Hills, with the first win forever known as the “Miracle at Merion,” coming as it did just sixteen months after Hogan was nearly killed in an automobile accident. Then nearly four decades later Curtis Strange prevailed in an 18-hole playoff against Nick Faldo at the Country Club in 1988, then held off a trio of challengers to win by a stroke at soggy Oak Hill in 1989.

Now, exactly forty years after Strange first nipped Faldo, 28-year old Brooks Koepka has added his name to the short list of back-to-back U.S. Open champions with his one-stroke victory Sunday at Shinnecock Hills. He did it over the closing holes with a crucial par save at the 14th after blocking his drive wide right, and a brilliant approach to the par-5 16th that left him with a gimme birdie.  It was Koepka’s first win at any tournament since last Father’s Day, when he overtook 54-hole leader Brian Harmon and eased to a four-shot victory at Erin Hills.

Years from now, when memories fade and the details are largely forgotten, the circumstances of Koepka’s twin wins will have passed into oblivion. In a sense that’s only fair. To win the Open even once is career-defining. To do so twice is literally Hall of Fame worthy, as the World Golf Hall of Fame’s eligibility criteria for male competitors is fifteen total victories OR multiple wins in majors. And to score those two wins in successive years is, quite obviously, something that in the modern era comes along just once every couple of generations. While he may have but a single other victory on the PGA Tour, Koepka’s ability to prevail in the national championship at both a course built on a glacial debris field in Wisconsin and one laid out over the windswept hills of Long Island’s south fork is a testament to a powerful combination of raw ability and mental toughness.

But while Koepka’s winning will be what is ultimately remembered, in the immediate aftermath of this year’s championship there is justifiably as much attention being paid to the USGA’s inadvertent but undeniable role in shaping the tournament’s outcome. That this has become an annual discussion among golf media and fans is an especially unwelcome fact.

Three summers ago, the USGA took the Open to the Pacific Northwest, staging the event at Chambers Bay, a young course on the shores of Puget Sound. Had the worst outcome been the fact that the treeless layout looked like nothing so much as a moonscape on television, the decision would have been excusable. But the steep hills on several holes forced the Association to restrict fan access due to safety concerns, meaning much of the play took place without the roars and crowd support that are an integral part of golf at a major. Far more significant was the condition of the immature greens, which were so bumpy and irregular that Rory McIlroy likened them to heads of cauliflower. It was not just nerves that contributed to Dustin Johnson’s decisive three-putt on the 72nd hole that handed the title to Jordan Spieth.

One year later Oakmont was a more traditional venue, but the USGA again became the story, with Johnson again the foil. While standing over a putt on the 5th green during the final round, he suddenly backed away. Discussion ensued between Johnson, his playing partner, and rules officials about whether his ball had moved as he addressed it. The decision on the scene was that if the ball moved it was not the result of anything Johnson did. But later in the round USGA officials changed their mind, informing Johnson while he stood on the 12th tee that no decision would be made until after the round. Despite having to play with that uncertainty in his head, Johnson went on to finish well clear of his closest chasers, making the eventual one stroke penalty immaterial. Both players and fans reacted scathingly to the USGA’s dithering.

Then last year USGA decided to open up Erin Hills, widening the fairways and cutting back the usually knee-high U.S. Open rough. Perhaps the organizers had no choice. Given the short history of the track that just opened in 2006 and had previously hosted only one USGA event, the 2011 U.S. Amateur, officials couldn’t be certain how the course would play. But what they got was a return to the old Greater Milwaukee Open, with birdies falling left and right. There were more than forty rounds under par on each of the first two days. On Saturday, after the cut, thirty-two players or nearly half the field broke par, led by Justin Thomas’s record-setting 62. It was called the national championship but played like a weekly Tour stop, thanks to the USGA’s decision to award the event to an inadequately vetted site.

Opened in 1891 and a founding member of the USGA, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club is nothing if not well vetted. Prior to last weekend it had hosted four previous U.S. Opens, both the Men’s and Women’s Amateur, and a Walker Cup. But as the USGA learned when the Open was last played at Shinnecock in 2004, the exposed links-style course can become dry and brutally hard when the wind blows and the sun shines. In that year the organizers were forced to water several greens between groups during Sunday’s final round, as it became almost impossible to stop a ball on the putting surfaces.

Despite that experience and a warm and windy weather forecast for Saturday’s third round this year, the USGA again set multiple pin placements on the edge of steep slopes. As the day wore on and the greens hardened, it became 2004 all over again. By the time the leaders teed off in mid-afternoon, they were playing an utterly different golf course than the early starters, one that was vastly more difficult.

Tony Finau and Daniel Berger went out early, shot matching 4-under 66s and went from a tie for 45th, eleven shots behind, to a tie for the lead and in Sunday’s final pairing. In contrast, the ten golfers who made up Saturday’s last five pairings played in a combined 67 over par. Just before those groups, Rickie Fowler alone was 14 over par, shooting his worst round ever in a major. And spectacle turned to farce when Phil Mickelson decided that a two-stroke penalty for hitting a ball while it was still moving was preferable to watching an errant putt roll who knows how far off a green and down a nearby slope. Social media responded as if Lefty had stolen both the trophy and the winner’s check and donated both to the Taliban.

In the wake of the debacle, USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted that Saturday’s setup “went too far,” and promised that the course would be “slowed down” for the final round. But the damage, which was easily foreseeable given the 2004 experience, was already done. Johnson, who by now must surely believe that someone high up in the Association really, really doesn’t like him, led by four at the tournament’s midpoint. The last golfer to lead the U.S. Open by that much and lose was Tom McNamara in 1909. But Johnson had putted just 53 times in his first two rounds combined. He needed 38 putts on Saturday afternoon’s ceramic tile greens to finish his third round 77, a score that brought Koepka, Finau, Berger and many others back into the tournament.

Twelve months from now our national championship returns to Pebble Beach, another venerable seaside course that has hosted the U.S. Open multiple times. One can hope that at Pebble the story will be about the golf and the golfers, and not about the officials in the blue blazers. But the recent track record is not promising.

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