By Andrew Both
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. (Reuters) - The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) acknowledged that its latest gamble of a tough course set-up backfired, claiming that unexpectedly strong afternoon winds were responsible for the third round carnage at the U.S. Open on Saturday.
The USGA tucked several hole locations near the edges of the crowned greens at Shinnecock Hills, and then watched some extraordinary scenes unfold as several players putted their balls off the 15th green.
Even worse, Phil Mickelson deliberately hit a moving ball on the 13th green to prevent it from rolling all the way off the putting surface.
The course was very playable in the morning, as attested by matching rounds of 66 by Daniel Berger and Tony Finau, but it was a different beast in the afternoon after the winds and low humidity baked the greens to a crisp.
"It was a tale of two different golf courses today," USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted.
"We felt good about the set-up this morning. We felt that it would work well given the forecast we had, but I think that now we would say that parts of this test of golf simply were too tough.
"We want the U.S. Open to be tough, but we saw some examples late in the day where well executed shots were not only not being rewarded, but in some cases penalized.
"We simply got higher winds than we anticipated."
With similarly strong winds predicted for Sunday's final round, Davis vowed not to make the same mistake, and the hoses were brought out to soak the greens within minutes of the round finishing.
The USGA likes to make its championship a test of the toughest order but the association left itself open to criticism in the event of a Berger or Finau win, which many would feel undeserved.
As well as they played, they finished before the halfway leaders had even teed off, and hardly expected to be tied for the lead on three-over for the tournament with Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka by the end of the day.
Johnson, in the final pairing, shot what he said was the best 77 of his career.
"I had six or seven putts today that I could have easily putted right off the green, but that's what it is," he said.
"It's the U.S. Open. It's supposed to be tough. There was maybe only one or two flags that I felt like were maybe got a little dicey this afternoon, but the rest of them were fine."
The best five scores were posted by players with morning tee times.
"The ball was running out so far on these greens, and some of these putts, there's just no grass around the hole," defending champion Koepka said.
"A little bit more grass (on the greens) would have been nice in the afternoon."
Justin Rose, who putted brilliantly in the worst of the conditions to sit one shot off the lead, described himself as "shell-shocked".
"Be careful what you wish for," he said. "We've all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week."
(Reporting by Andrew Both; Editing by John O'Brien)