The US Open: Golf's greatest con trick

Golf News

Does making the world’s best players struggle to salvage par really present the US Open, and therefore golf in general, in the best possible light?

by Paul Mahoney

The US Open is sport’s greatest con trick. The organisers of the second major championship of the year, the United States Golf Association, don’t even attempt to hide the fact that they are taking all of us for a ride.

And they’re clever, too – they keep moving their championship around the country.

If they stayed at the same venue each year, like the Masters at Augusta, no one would return for a second visit. Everyone comes back to Augusta each April because they put on an entertaining spectacle.

The USGA would have gone bust years ago if they hosted the US Open at the same course.

They’re a brazen lot, too. The US Open should be called the Sting Open. The USGA’s slogan is “grow the game”. But few, if anyone, tuning in to watch the greatest golfers play one of the only four tournaments that matters, will be inspired to take up the game.

Sado-masochists, maybe. The USGA like a slogan. They revel in the one they dreamed up for the US Open. “June is busting out all over.” No, already taken.

“The Toughest Major.” I would have loved to have been sitting at the table for that Blue Sky meeting when some USGA blazer wrote those words on a flip chart.

“Yeah, let’s make it really tough so there aren’t many birdies and eagles and let’s make scoring par our obsession and let’s bikini-wax the greens and bake them in upturned saucers. Then let’s harvest the rough like we’re wild asparagus farmers.”

Amazingly, they signed up to that. So while the Masters has Amen Corner, and the Open Championship has pure links golf, and the PGA Championship has, well never mind about the one that feels like a normal tournament, the US Open’s unique selling point is that it makes what is essentially a simple game of ball and stick impossible to play and little fun to watch.

Wouldn’t it be fun, though, once a year, to watch a major football final with five-a-side goals or the Wimbledon men’s singles final played over a six-foot net?

No. It would not. Sports fans pay to watch the gifted immortals entertain us. Sport is a trivial pursuit that makes us forget about all the other real stuff that fills our lives. Who wants to watch and have nothing to cheer? Shame on the USGA for forgetting that golf is part of the entertainment business and not some ego trip for frustrated middle-aged grumps.

June is the only time the USGA come in contact with the elite tour professionals and almost every year there is a daft incident that makes golf look foolish to the watching world. Last year’s eventual champion, Dustin Johnson, had to contend with being told on the course at Oakmont during the final round that he may have broken a rule and may be penalised shots.

“Or, erm, not, we’ll, erm, let you know.” It took hours for the officials to tell the difference between their aspidistras and their elbows.

“The PGA Tour and European Tour has the best rules officials,” said Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn on Twitter. Steve Elkington tweeted what everyone else was thinking – “F***ing bulls***.”

But the USGA seems to take such indignation as a compliment.

“It would not be a US Open if we didn’t get some chirping,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director of party pooping. “We accept that. In fact, we joke internally sometimes that if nobody’s complaining, we have done something wrong.”

Whatever happened to grow the game? The US Open championship has a reputation for identifying the last man standing. The USGA is lucky it does not also identify the only spectator standing.

Despite the championship’s dour reputation, this year’s event at Erin Hills, a public course on the outskirts of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, is a sold-out bun fight including 35,000 spectators a day and an expected financial impact on the community of $130 million. Never mind the quality, feel the girth of the greenbacks.

But maybe, just maybe, after years of defending their daft philosophy, the USGA has decided to try to give value for money at the US Open. Erin Hills has been sculpted across a vast linksy-looking landscape, minus the sea, so there is the promise of fast bouncy fairways and no pencil-thin tree-lined fairways. But they could still mess it up by growing the rough to juicy levels and shaving the greens with razor blades.

“I’ve heard it’s long, I’ve heard it’s linksy. I’ve heard the gamut from pretty good to terrible,” said Jim Furyk, champion in 2003.

Every time the US Open comes around, it has become the tradition to recall that Phil Mickelson has been runner-up six times and Tiger Woods last won a major in 2008 at Torrey Pines, the one where he hobbled around on a broken leg and had to wince through an 18-hole playoff on the Monday (another ridiculous USGA tradition) before beating Rocco Mediate.

Mickelson was asked recently if a good set-up of Erin Hills could boost USGA credibility among players. “I don’t know if doing one thing right is going to fix that,” he said.

In a local qualification tournament in May, Clifton McDonald from Mississippi shot a 55-over-par 127. He was one of 9,485 players attempting to make it to Erin Hills. The winning score at that event was three over par. Seems old habits die hard for the USGA.

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