Can U.S. Open complainers contend? An unscientific study of the intersection of whining and winning

June 12, 2019

Jack Nicklaus once said that “some players just weren’t meant to win the U.S. Open. Quite often, a lot of them know it.” Quite often, a lot of them also make a stink about it. The greens are too fast, the pins are took tucked, the rough is too thick. Which got us thinking: How often do U.S. Open complainers — and there have been oodles of them of late — contend? Put another way, if a player goes off on a U.S. Open setup, can you write off his chances that week? Here’s a look back at 23 players over the last 40 years who have griped to varying degrees about how the USGA set up an Open site, along with where they finished at that Open. Scroll to the bottom for our (shocking!) findings.

Dave Hill, Hazeltine, 1970 U.S. Open

Hazeltine had opened just eight years before the Open visited and the players weren’t exactly wild about Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s handiwork. When a reporter asked Hill what he thought the course was lacking, Hill said, “Eighty acres of corn and a few cows … they ruined a good farm when they built this.” He added, “They should plow it up and start over.”

Place: 2nd

Larry Rinker, Congressional, 1997 U.S. Open

A few days before the Open, Rinker caught USGA setup man Tom Meeks’ ear and complained that on one par-4 he required a driver, 3-wood just to get home. (To which Meeks responded: “Isn’t that great? You play all year on the PGA Tour and never get that chance.”)

Result: MC (76-72—148)

Kirk Triplett, Olympic Club, 1998 U.S. Open

The complaints about Olympic’s 18th green were merited — the back-hole location was all but unplayable because of the steep pitch and fast speed — but they were complaints nonetheless! Triplett was so exasperated when a putt that he banged up the slope came back to his feet that he turned his putter into a back stop.

Result: MC (73-79—152)

Tom Lehman, Olympic Club, 1998 U.S. Open

Added Lehman of the wacky hole location on 18: “The way the USGA set that hole up is unfair. All the guys I talked to feel the same way.”

Result: T5 (68-75-68-75—286)

John Daly, Pinehurst No. 2, 1999 U.S. Open

After the missing the 8th green on Sunday. J.D. tried three times to bang his ball up the slope to the putting surface — and failed three times. As the ball came back to his feet on the third attempt, Daly swatted it before it had come to rest. The ugliness resulted in an 11, which Daly followed with some choice words for the UGSA after his round.

Result: 68th (68-77-81-83—309)

Jose Maria Olazabal, Pinehurst, 1999 U.S. Open

Ollie was so frustrated after his first-round 75 — to be fair, mostly with his own game — that he put his hand through a hotel wall.

Result: W/D (75)

Nick Price, Bethpage Black, 2002 U.S. Open

Price did not mince his words when assessing the USGA’s setup of bruising Bethpage Black: “It was really a pitiful effort.”

Result: T8 (72-75-69-70—286)

Zach Johnson has complained multiple times about the USGA.
Zach Johnson has complained multiple times about the USGA.
Getty Images

Cliff Kresge, Shinnecock Hills, 2004 U.S. Open

When the green at the par-3 7th all but died on Sunday, making holding it virtually impossible, the players’ tempers came alive. “Do you guys like us looking like a bunch of idiots out there?” Kresge raged . “It’s not fun to hit a ball and watch it go back to your feet. I don’t know how much people enjoy this.”

Result: T62 (72-73-77-82—304)

Jerry Kelly, Shinnecock, 2004 U.S. Open

Kelly was not amused, either, saying of the USGA: “When are they going to grow a head? I have no idea. I think they’re ruining the game. They’re ruining the tournament. This isn’t golf. Period.”

Result: T40 (76-69-71-81—297)

Phil Mickelson, Oakmont, 2007 U.S. Open

Playing Oakmont a couple of weeks before the Open, Phil tweaked his wrist in a patch of gnarly rough, forcing him to wear a wrist brace during the championship. “It is absolutely dangerous,” Mickelson said. “It’s disappointing to dream as a kid about winning the U.S. Open and spend all this time getting ready for it and have the course setup injure you.”

Result: MC (74, 77 — 151)

Ryan Moore, Pebble Beach, 2010 U.S. Open

Moore took particular issue with the 14th and 17th greens. “I feel like instead of difficulty, they just go for trickiness. … I think they go for a spectacle; they want some hole to draw attention and make everybody look stupid, I guess. It doesn’t reward good golf shots like Augusta National does, and I don’t understand why you’d have a tournament that doesn’t reward good golf shots.” Moore added that USGA setups made him “hate golf for about two months.”

Result: T33 (75-73-75-73—296)

Tiger Woods, Pebble Beach, 2010 U.S. Open

Woods, never a fan of poa annua greens, which can turn bumpy late in the day, called the putting surfaces at Pebble “awful.”

Result: T4 (74-72-66-75—287)

Zach Johnson, Merion, 2013 U.S. Open

The golf world loved the idea of taking the U.S. Open back to a throwback venue. Some of the players, not so much — at least not after the USGA tightened the screws on the layout. “I would describe the whole golf course as manipulated,” Johnson said. “It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses.”

Result: MC (74-77—151)

Phil Mickelson, Merion, 2013 U.S. Open

“That’s terrible, 274 yards. We can’t even reach it.”

Result: T2 (67-72-70-74 — 283)

Ryan Palmer, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

The grand experiment that was the Chambers Bay Open went down with more than a few players like a glass of warm beer. Leading the charge was Ryan Palmer, who barked, “As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course — not with the way some of the greens are and the pin placements they can put out there,” Palmer said. “[Davis’] idea of tee boxes is ridiculous. That’s not golf. I don’t care what anybody says. It will get a lot of bad press from the players. It is a joke. I don’t understand it. I just don’t know why they would do it.”

Result: T52 (74-70-73-73—290)

Sergio Garcia, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

Sergio Garcia took his Chambers gripes to Twitter, remaking, “I think a championship of the caliber of U.S. Open deserves better quality green surfaces that we have this week but maybe I’m wrong!”

Result: T18 (70-75-70-68—283)

Ian Poulter, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

Ian Poulter started chirping before he’d even seen the course: “The reports back [from fellow players] are it’s a complete farce. I guess someone has to win.”

Result: T54 (72-73-69-77)

Henrik Stenson, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

“A tricked-up links course,” observed the Swede.

Result: T27 (65-74-72-74—285)

Bill Horschel, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

Never one to hold back, Horschel said, ”I think a lot of players, and I’m one of them, have lost some respect for the USGA and this championship this year.”

Result: T25 (72-72-73-67—284)

Jordan Spieth, Chambers Bay, 2015 U.S. Open

Spieth didn’t complain publicly but TV mics caught him saying to his caddie Michael Greller that the 18th hole, which played both as a par-4 and par-5 that week, was “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played in my life.”

Result: 1 (68-67-71-69—275)

Kevin Na, Erin Hills, 2017 U.S. Open

Na was so offended by the knee-high fescue lining the fairways on this inland links that channeled his rage through a homemade video. “Every hole we got this,” he said on camera. “Every hole!”

Result: T32 (68-76-73-71—288)

Phil Mickelson, Shinnecock Hills, 2018 U.S. Open

Mickelson’s hijinks on the 13th green Saturday — scooping up a moving ball — was as stunning a non-verbal statement as has ever been made about a U.S. Open setup. (Given Mickelson’s stature in this game this dwarfed anything Daly has ever done.)

Result: T48 (77-69-81-69)

Zach Johnson, Shinnecock Hills, 2018 U.S. Open

Mickelson’s tantrum stole the headlines but several other players were less than enamored by the third-round setup. “We’re not on the edge. I thought we could be on the edge, but we’ve surpassed it,” Johnson told Sky Sports that day. “It’s pretty much gone, especially the latter part of the day for us. It’s pretty much shot. It’s really unfortunate, because in my opinion, some of the best land and certainly one of the best venues in all of golf, especially in this county, is Shinnecock Hills. It’s as good as it gets. … Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course.”

Result: T12 (73-73-72-70—288)


Yes, complainers are unquestionably contenders! Of the 23 gripers in our study, 18 made the cut — that’s nearly 80 percent — five finished in the top 5 and one, Jordan Spieth, actually won the U.S. Open. So keep an eye (or an ear) out for the whiners this week at Pebble Beach: one of them might just end up winning.

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