PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — There’s an old line in golf about how you’re not playing against other players, you’re playing against the golf course. That’s true, but for the past few years, more than a few players have felt that every time the U.S. Open rolls around, they have a second opponent in the USGA.
The United States Golf Association, which oversees not just the U.S. Open but the entire game of golf itself in America, has had a rough last few years at its marquee event. A quick history:
In 2016, Johnson was hit with a penalty at Oakmont, but he wasn’t informed of the penalty’s severity for several holes, a rules debacle that left the entire sport looking foolish.
In 2017, Erin Hills ended up playing like the easiest course imaginable, far gentler than usual U.S. Open conditions, a knock to the tournament’s rep as the toughest test in golf.
In 2018, Shinnecock turned borderline unplayable on Saturday, and then the USGA overcorrected on Sunday, leading to a circus-like atmosphere that had Phil Mickelson chasing down a rolling putt.
Add to that the controversy over the rollout of a series of new rules, which had the USGA and Justin Thomas sniping at each other over social media like middle schoolers, and what you’ve got is an organization facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence.
All of which makes Pebble Beach an inflection point for the USGA. This is one of the world’s legendary golf venues, a course whose soaring cliffs, treacherous winds and dime-sized greens provide a challenge any day of the week. How far will the USGA go to tinker with what’s worked for a century?
“We're going into this week with a great plan, and part of that plan is to do what we've always done,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA senior managing director of championships and the man now responsible for setting up Pebble Beach for the tournament. “Our philosophy has not changed. We will continue to endeavor to provide the toughest test, the ultimate test, the most comprehensive test, whatever you want to call it, and really just to create something where players' shot-making ability, mental resolve, physical stamina are tested.”
Count Phil Mickelson among those unconvinced.
Mickelson, Woods criticize USGA’s coursework
“One hundred percent of the time, they have messed it up if it doesn't rain,” Mickelson said recently. “The rain is the governor — that's the only governor they have. And if they don't have a governor, they don't know how to control themselves.”
Even Tiger Woods, rarely one to make waves against the status quo, has taken a stand against the USGA. “The Open has changed,” Woods said. “I thought it was just narrow fairways — hit it in the fairway or hack out, move on. Now there's chipping areas around the greens. There's less rough, graduated rough. They try to make the Open strategically different. I just like it when there's high rough and narrow fairways and, ‘Go get it, boys.’ ”
On top of that, a devastating article by Golf Digest interviewing dozens of players, caddies, officials and others involved in the game reveals that resentment against the USGA runs bone-deep. Indeed, the rules debacle at Oakmont so infuriated players that they even considered the unthinkable — a boycott of a future U.S. Open.
“We had about 10–15 guys who were willing to sit out after 2016,” one multiple PGA Tour winner said. “Some of them were big names—Dustin was one, Rory [McIlroy] was another.”
When you’ve got players talking about skipping a chance to play a major, one of the sport’s peaks, you’ve got problems.
At a press conference Wednesday, USGA officials sought to walk a narrow line: both acknowledging the players’ concerns and defending their own decisions, both in the past and the future.
“If you go back and read history, there have been plenty of times in the past where there's been maybe one view of the players and another view of the USGA,” CEO Mike Davis said. “And I'm not suggesting there's a different view now, but we'll be just fine.”
The ‘quit complaining’ angle
There’s another angle to the setup drama, one endorsed by a player who spoke Tuesday morning: “Everybody has got to play the same golf course. So it really doesn't make a difference. It doesn't make a difference if you put it in the fairway and you hit every green, there's really no problem, is there? ... If [you] put it in the fairway, you shouldn't have to complain about the rough. You hit the greens and you hit it close, you shouldn't have to complain about the greens.”
That player happens to be the guy who’s won the last two U.S. Opens. Maybe Brooks Koepka knows something his rivals don’t: quit complaining and play better.
”We are endeavoring to set up and play a U.S. Open as the U.S. Open has always been at Pebble Beach and just let history unfold, as it always has,” Bodenhamer said, “and it will take care of itself.”
The course should always win in the end. But will the players and the USGA let that happen? We’ll find out this weekend.
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