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How the course setup at Shinnecock became an unintended star of the show

June 18, 2018

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Two over par for the day and 10 over for the championship on Sunday afternoon, Justin Thomas planted his approach into a gentle slope, 20 feet to the right of the hole at the 374-yard, par-4 13th at Shinnecock Hills. Twenty-four hours earlier, that same shot would have slithered down the steeply canted incline. Sunday, it stopped dead.

What a difference a day makes.

For the second time in as many U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA strong-armed the layout into something that verged on the unplayable by underestimating how the wind would affect the playing surfaces. After the debacle of 2004, when play was halted at the par-3 7th because well-struck shots wouldn’t hold the green and well-struck putts rolled off the green, the USGA issued assurances that this unfair course preparation would never happen again. It did — the very next time the U.S. Open returned here. In 2004, officials had already altered the hole location before play started to accommodate the wild conditions, and the grounds crew hosed off the green after two threesomes had already come through.

Fast forward to 2018. Scores soared in Round 1, because the wind blew stronger than expected. Players may have griped privately, but not publicly. With a scoring average of 76.47, it was brutally tough, but ultimately fair, even if on the edge. Only two players broke par, and just barely, with one-under 69s. But it did get ugly. Phil Mickelson shot 77, Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods 78, Jason Day, 79 and Rory McIlroy, 80. Beleaguered Scott Gregory, the British Amateur winner, signed for a 92. “Some of the pin locations were brutal,” said defending champ Brooks Koepka, who fired a five-over 75.

Patrick Reed likely spoke for the majority after his 73. “Balls are bouncing and releasing more than they were in the practice rounds, and when that happens, if you’re not spot-on on absolutely every aspect of the game, you’re going to struggle,” he said. “But the setup was fine. I didn’t think there was a hole that was set up unfair or anything like that. You had to hit quality golf shots. They set up the golf course like a U.S. Open, like it should be. If you hit a great shot, you’re going to be rewarded. If you don’t, you’re going to struggle.”

Shinnecock won Round 1. The stroke average was nearly as high as the first round in 1986 (77.55), when 40-mile-per-hour winds and heavy rain wreaked havoc, resulting in just one score of par 70 and one at 71.

The conditions relented in Round 2. The cumulative scoring average dropped to 73.59 and red numbers were liberally sprinkled on the scoreboard, notably by Dustin Johnson, who tacked on a 67 to his first-round 69, and by Tommy Fleetwood and Koepka, who posted 66s. Shinnecock played how it was intended, one of our nation’s greatest, most challenging championship courses, one that will yield a low score to superb play, but is otherwise relentless.

Then came Saturday’s carnage. You can’t blame original course architect William Flynn for the mess, or Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who tweaked the design in preparation for the tournament. Nor can you point a finger at Shinny superintendent Jon Jennings and his staff, who did a remarkable job of creating a balanced, well-conditioned layout following a miserable spring, weather-wise. No, this one falls on the USGA. And they owned it.

On a day that the tournament administrators misjudged the stronger-than-anticipated wind, which dried out the greens, they inexplicably set several pins in truly dicey locations, specifically on holes 13, 15 and 18. Disaster ensued. With the holes in precarious locations on the edge of slopes, it was nearly impossible to stop an approach, chip or putt anywhere near the hole.

A disgusted (or clever) Mickelson hockeyed his still-moving ball on the 13th green after it had zoomed well past the hole on his first putt. He incurred a two-stroke penalty — but it could have been worse. It seemed as if he was thrusting a middle finger in frustration at the USGA’s setup, only weeks after praising it as the best U.S. Open setup he had ever seen.

Rafa Cabrera Bello tweeted, “It was not a fair test of golf. Greens were unplayable, with unnecessary pin positions. The USGA found a way to make us look like fools on the course. A pity they manage to destroy a beautiful golf course.”

Echoed Zach Johnson after a respectable 72, just as things were getting really nasty, “Unfortunately, they’ve lost the golf course. When you have a championship that comes down to sheer luck, that’s not right.”

Added Brooks Koepka after a 72 of his own: “Some of these greens, there is no grass around the holes, and the balls keep running away.”

The stats told the story. The 15th hole ranked as the 10th hardest hole on Thursday and the 13th hardest hole on Friday. On Saturday, it played as the toughest, all because of a goofy pin placement. 

What irked many even further was the disparity of how relatively easy the course played in the morning, when the breezes were soft, as forecast, versus the gale-force conditions of later on, also forecast. Daniel Berger and Tony Finau were able to take advantage of greens still luxuriating in morning moisture to post 66s. Both players started more than four hours before the leaders teed off.

Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA and still its setup guru, took the heat. “There were some aspects of this setup that went too far in the sense that well-executed shots were not just not rewarded, but penalized…Frankly, we just missed it with the wind. The greens got fast. The firmness was OK, but the speed was too much.”

Davis vowed that Father’s Day conditions would be much better, announcing that they would slow down course for Sunday’s play. After Saturday’s scoring average of 75.33, everybody was looking to exhale and have some fun.

Indeed, greens were watered Saturday night and Sunday morning. Speeds were reduced on average, 10-12 inches slower than what was witnessed in Rounds 2 and 3. Hole locations were re-adjusted. Players could breathe again.

It wasn’t exactly a Waste Management Phoenix Open birdie-fest on Sunday, but it was close enough. Rickie Fowler followed his third-round 84 with a 65. Mickelson, the hero-villain of Shinnecock this week, posted a 69 after his 81. Patrick Reed birdied the first three holes and five of the first seven. Tommy Fleetwood scorched Shinnecock for a competitive course and U.S. Open record 63, missing makeable birdie putts over the last three holes.

The winds subsided, the day was warm, and the course played as it should have — bending to great play, yet not really breaking. The final-round cumulative scoring average was 72.179. Still over par, but not a sock to the head. It was a far cry from the beatdown in 2004, when Sunday scores averaged an astronomical 78.73.

The overall scoring average in 2004 was 74.081. In 2018, it was 74.650. Almost a dead heat. Bottom line: The U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock Hills in 2026. If the USGA can just leave the course well enough alone, it will shine as one of golf’s greatest championship venues.