'We don't even talk about the winning score' - have the USGA learnt their lessons?

Golf News

After the shambolic events of the past two years in both the men's and women's US Opens, the USGA are up against it next week, writes Mark Townsend.

It’s started already, Adam Scott has had a little nibble at the USGA while the first sightings of Erin Hills’ rough, via Wesley Bryan’s Twitter account, will have put the shivers up all 156 players in the field.

After the last two years the USGA will be secretly praying that next week’s US Open passes off as, as it likes to regard itself, ‘the ultimate test’, but without the ‘broccoli’ like greens of Chambers Bay or rules fiasco of last year.

The dark days of missing a fairway by two yards and having to hack out sideways seem to be long gone – the introduction of graded rough was brought in at Winged Foot in 2006 – but those memories and staff hosing down greens mid round and players putting off the short stuff lives long with all of us.

And we’re just watching it.

Scott, a 33-1 chance next week, said: “Let’s just have something that’s a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal.

“Maybe it’s time to do away with the even-par target. The ball is in [the USGA’s] court. Hopefully they get it right this time, just from a playability standpoint. If their major pinnacle event requires courses to be the way they are, it doesn’t set a good example. They’ve really dropped the ball with where the game is at over the last 20 years.”

So, while the start of the week will be re-running the events of last year and Dustin Johnson’s belated one-shot penalty, what do the USGA need to get things right?

1. The greens

Henrik Stenson had this to say about Chambers Bay’s putting surfaces: “It’s borderline laughable at some of the greens and some of the pin positions, when we’re actually almost better off plugged in a bunker than being on the top of a ridge. And it’s pretty much like putting on broccoli.”

While Ian Poulter added of the last time the USGA introduced a new course to the US Open rota: “They were simply the worst most disgraceful surfaces I have ever seen on any tour.”

The USGA’s head honcho Mike Davis is supremely confident that this is one area where Erin Hills will excel.

He said: “The greens themselves are wonderfully conditioned. I can’t remember coming into a US Open where greens were this smooth, and these are almost totally hybrid bent grass. We all believe that we’re going to see a lot of putts made at this US Open. When you hit a putt, if you get it on the right line, the right speed, it will go in here, and we don’t expect to see many things hit and moving sideways.”

Added to which the greens are bigger than usual US Open surfaces and they’re not surrounded by thick bund, rather it will be closely mown so there are options aplenty to relocate yourself to the green.

2. The rules

Last year Dustin Johnson saw a shot added to his score after his ball was adjudged to have moved at the fifth. The American was told about it at the 12th tee so had to play the last seven holes with the uncertainty of what was going to happen. Incredibly he still won by three.

The following month Anna Nordqvist played off for the US Women’s Open with Brittany Lang. At the second of three holes the Swede was adjudged to have moved a grain of sand – which she did – in a fairway bunker. But it took until three shots later by Nordqvist at the next hole to find out about the two-shot penalty.

Lang on the other hand had only played two shots, could afford to pitch conservatively and won with a par.

At the prize-giving Lang was called ‘Bethany’ instead of by her actual name.

At Erin Hills there will be 225 USGA staff so the hope is that there won’t be another almighty rules shambles.

We will see.

3. The winning score

So the story goes every US Open should end up with a winning score of around level par if the USGA have done their job right.

Interestingly eight players finished in red figures at Chambers Bay and only one winner since 2007 – Justin Rose at +1 at Merion – has finished over par.

The good news for the players is that they will be playing a par-72 US Open course for the first time since 1992.

The other good news is that, supposedly, the USGA don’t even consider such matters.

“Think back to the US Open that Tiger Woods won in 2000, he shot 12 under. That was one of the great US Opens we’ve ever seen. He won by 15 shots but we celebrated – the whole world celebrated there and so I know people get caught up with this even-par thing,” said Davis.

US Open leaderboard

“I can tell you nobody at this table got caught up. We don’t even talk about it. What we do talk about is making sure we can adjust the course to say if there’s soft conditions, then how can we tuck a hole location a little bit more versus if we get real firm conditions and it gets windy, we’re saying how do we tone this thing down, how do we slow the greens. It really isn’t about the score, it’s about just setting the course up properly.”

And, though they will mix things up with the length of the course and teeing options each day, they won’t be reducing the par 5s to long 4s. Par 72 means par 72.

4. The bunkers

Now this should be good and was one aspect where the three designers could barely contain their excitement when we spoke to them.

Should you, like everyone else, be bored by the succession of players aiming for sand as their ‘safe play’ on par 5s or ending the week with stats of 75-80 percent sand saves then this week should offer something different. If you can imagine such a thing.

The bunkers at Erin Hills are actual hazards in that the players won’t want to have to get out the sand or lob wedge too often.

Expect downhill, uphill and sidehill lies and expect players not getting out full stop. Magic.

Erin Hills

5. The venues

They all thought David Fay had lost his marbles when he suggested the municipal Bethpage Black and what a story that was.

With the right build-up of weather Chambers Bay could have been sensational and this year we have the tale of a course that only opened in 2006. One of the three designers, Golf Digest’s Ron Whitten, wrote a letter to Davis in 2003 and told him that Erin Hills “will ultimately be a better Open site than the Straits Course at Whistling Straits” before adding that the course wasn’t yet built.

So well done to the USGA for occasionally taking a punt on something different – the next few years the US Open is back on very familiar territory – Shinnecock, Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Brookline – so let’s hope for a ruling and broccoli-free week in Wisconsin.

NCG’s dedicated US Open site has all the latest news and features from Erin Hills.

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