USGA officials - not the players - will be feeling pressure most as US Open tees off

James Corrigan
The Telegraph
US Open officials are under pressure to make sure playing surfaces are playable - REX
US Open officials are under pressure to make sure playing surfaces are playable - REX

There can be no doubt who will be feeling the most pressure as the 119th US Open tees off on Thursday. 

Not Brooks Koepka, going for history with a third successive win in this major. Not Tiger Woods trying to summon even a fraction of the genius he displayed here in his 15-shot victory 19 years ago. Not even Rory McIlroy, at the very least trying desperately to avoid the ignominy of four missed cuts in a row at America’s National Championship. 

No, the sweatiest palms will belong to the officials of the United States Golf Association themselves. “It is critical we get it right this week,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior manager director of championships admitted here on Wednesday. 

“We have talked about it all year. It's important for the USGA and for the game and what we do for the game. We feel a great obligation, but  we have a great plan and feel good that we're going to present to the players as a tough but true test.”

There are top pros who stick up for the USGA - namely, Jordan Spieth, who won in 2015 and Koepka two - but the overwhelming majority in the locker room will believe it when they play it. As he looked across the lush-green expanse of perhaps the most picturesque layout in the sport, one leading European told me: “Not even the USGA can ‘f—-‘ this one up.” 

As he did so, a sea mist began to envelope the course and soon golfing heaven became quite eerie. It summed up the mood rather perfectly on the eve of the season’s third major.

Mutiny has been in the air. A story in American magazine Golf Digest claimed that a number of the top pros, including Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, had actually talked of boycott last year. It has yet to be confirmed, but Mike Davis, the USGA chief executive, was not denying it. “Certainly, we read that report but we have decided to take the high road,” he said. Well, he likes it up there.

<span>McIlroy during a practise round</span> <span>Credit: GETTY IMAGES </span>
McIlroy during a practise round Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Davis is central to the controversy. Golf tournaments should be about the players, not the blazers, yet for the last decade Davis has put himself front, left and centre as a visionary and all too often the spotlight ended up falling upon him as the villain. 

In 2015 there was the farce of Chambers Bay in Seattle where, in Henrik Stenson’s words, “broccoli” seemed to be growing on the greens. In 2016 at Oakmont, Johnson was not even sure whether he was playing down the stretch with a two-shot penalty or not.  The USGA informed him afterwards that he had been, but fortunately, Johnson had a big enough lead to avoid an outrage. 

In 2017, Erin Hills with its wide fairways, looked more like a regular event than a major, particularly after bowing to player pressure to chop back the rough, and last year at Shinnecock Hills, after faithfully promising they would make the same errors as 14 years before when they “lost” the greens, they went ahead and made exactly the same errors. 

And all the while, Davis smiled his way through it, banging on about “ultimate tests” and “creating something special”. Yes the USGA’s arrogance had always rivalled the R&A’s pomposity for shamelessness, but recently there has been no contest.

This year, in terms of set-up, if not TV interviews, Davis has taken a backseat with Bodenhamer stepping up. The field has been impressed so far, but Woods has warned they will encounter a different being entirely come the weekend.  

“The USGA is not going to want to lose these greens early in the week and for the first couple of days I’m sure they will be slow,” Woods said. “Come the weekend they might let them get close to the limit , but because of what has transpired in the past, I don’t foresee them pushing them to the edge at the very beginning.”

<span>Tiger Woods practising on the green of the 14th hole </span> <span>Credit: REX </span>
Tiger Woods practising on the green of the 14th hole Credit: REX

Woods refers to Pebble’s poa annua greens as “ridiculously small”. “If they get firm and crusty it will be so hard to hold them,” he  explained. That is the danger and the USGA bigwigs have acknowledged as much, telling the players that, with dry conditions forecasted, they will, if required, syringe greens between the morning and afternoon waves on Thursday and Friday.

Whatever, there will, as always, be a winner come Sunday evening and nobody should be surprised if, after 104 years, Scot Willie Anderson at last has a companion in the record books for lifting three US Open titles in succession. It is absurd that Koepka is even “contesting” favouritism with Johnson and McIlroy. After winning four of the last eight majors he has started, and three of the last four, the 29-year-old should be out on his own at the top of the betting market.

McIlroy was his old, carefree self in blowing away a top-class field in Canada last week and has been delighted by what he has found on the Monterey Peninsula. That will be relief to Davis and Co as in the build-up, McIlroy warned that the USGA would “have a problem” if they botched up this renewal. “I think the set-up this week is awesome," he said. "The greens are perfect, the fairways are great, the rough is thick but fair. I think it's a very, very good setup.”

McIlroy and Johnson  should be contenders, while Woods must be given a big chance if he reproduces his Masters form. For England, Tommy Fleetwood, last year’s runner-up, has the quality of iron play to contend and at 48, Phil Mickelson has another chance to complete the career grand slam. “This is the cathedral of American golf - it’s a mystical place,” Bodenhamer said. Prayers all round.

Rory McIlroy the $10m man

Rory McIlroy feels like the $10m man again. The Northern Irishman sets out on the mission to end his major drought believing he is swinging it with "more freedom and fire" than at any time since he won golf’s biggest cheque almost three years ago.

McIlroy, 30, lifted his second title of the year with a seven-shot triumph at last week’s Canada Open. Having missed the cut the previous Friday at the Memorial tournament, the world No 3  was struck by not only how quickly he turned around his form, but also his attitude and rhythm.

<span>Rory McIlroy feels like the £7,882,300 man</span> <span>Credit: AP </span>
Rory McIlroy feels like the £7,882,300 man Credit: AP

“The last time I felt this free has to go back to that run at the play-offs in ’16 [when he won the FedEx Cup],” he said “Memorial was a blessing in disguise - it let me work on my game. It’s easier said than done to play with that freedom and fire, but I know what I'm capable of and I proved to myself I can go out and do that. Hopefully I can now do it more often..”

McIlroy, who made his major breakthrough in 2011 at Congressional, has missed the cut at the last three US Opens, a record he describes as “pathetic”. Furthermore, his record at Pebble Beach hardly inspires confidence. He missed the cut in 2010 and again at last year’s AT&T Pro-am. “There is no reason why I shouldn’t pay well here, McIlroy  said.

That just leaves his recent propensity for slow starts. In his 17 attempts at winning a major since the 2014 USPGA, McIlroy has only twice broken 70 in the opening round. “You look at the history, that first round is so important,” McIlroy said. “My first rounds at Augusta [73] and Bethpage [72] this year put me behind the eight ball and on major courses it's hard to catch up.”

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