Monday after Shinnecock

In 2004, the last time our national open was played at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club at the extreme eastern end of Long Island, the wailing and gnashing of teeth by players could be heard 90 miles away in Manhattan. At issue was the course setup and particularly the par-3 7th hole where in the final round the first four contestants made a triple bogey, a triple bogey, a triple bogey and a bogey. The putting surface was so fast the ball would not stop much less stop anywhere near the hole.

On that Sunday fourteen years ago, the USGA rather than suffer further embarrassment, opted to water the 7th and a few other greens allowing the leaders including champion Retief Goosen to be able to play the hole without undue mishap.

Now that the 118th U.S. Open is in the record books with Brooks Koepka putting on a memorable performance for in second Championship in as many years here are five takeaways.

Course setup – Thursday proved that wind, 4-inch rough and thigh-high fescue can make any course into an extremely tough test even though fairway widths were generous averaging 41 yards compared with less than 30 yards in some recent Opens. The course Thursday and Friday was extremely difficult but playable. Moderate green speeds and shaved false fronts along with shaved false sides and shaved false backs meant controlling approaches was diabolically critical. Saturday afternoon however the course was unplayable to even well struck approaches and putts. A non-apology from the USGA did nothing to mitigate the fact they really messed up. They compensated by putting lots of water on the course in preparation for Sunday so that fourth round scores averaged an astonishing 3.2 strokes lower than Saturday. The USGA continues to believe they should push course setups to the point that when weather conditions don’t match weather predictions the result is a disaster.

Woods Performance – It’s 10 years since Tiger Woods last won a major and before start of play Thursday some who should know better announced he was ready to win his 15th major. From the first hole however, it was plain Woods game is not ready to take on a course of U.S. Open difficulty. Poor iron play paired with mediocre driving put too much pressure on his short game. His scrambling was passable, but he just didn’t hit enough greens and combined with a bottom third of the field in putting he had no chance to make the cut much less contend. U.S. Open’s aren’t won with three double bogeys and a triple bogey. Put another way, the 42-year old Woods has a long way to go before we see the Tiger of old not simply an old Tiger.

Traffic Was Awful –  Before the Championship began USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said Shinnecock Hills would be in the consideration for another Open in years to come. Let’s face it, one of the biggest reasons old traditional courses are not played by the Tour any longer is the lack of acreage to hold thousands of fans, parking, concessions, the TV compound and multiple corporate hospitality locations. Should an efficient way to get players and fans to the course be part of the consideration or is this another case where the USGA does what they want because they can? And besides did anyone notice Shinnecock Hills is at the end of an island with one main road? Oh well, at least the Open won’t be back here until 2026.

Lefty’s Brain Cramp: Rarely do you see a professional do something as inane as Phil Mickelson hitting a moving ball on the 13th hole during Saturday’s third round. The whole episode was ridiculous regardless of his excuse, rationalization, justification or reasoning if indeed any reasoning even existed at the time. Phil called USGA Executive Director Davis offering to withdraw if he had crossed the line of acceptable behavior but the USGA had already ruled he would not be disqualified. This however didn’t stop the postings on social media and Olympian pronouncements by certain analysts. Might Lefty’s real problem been his frustration trying to win his career grand slam U.S. Open on a course that had become unplayable…we’ll probably never know.

Two-hole Playoff: Thanks to Koepka we didn’t have to experience the new two-hole playoff which hardly anyone has a good word about. The USGA made the decision to drop the 18-hole format citing, “…everyone wanted to see a Sunday finish.” Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Fox, who have the broadcast rights, heads the list of “everyone?”

The Significance of the DJ Rule

The “DJ Rule.” The modification of the Rules of Golf by the United States Golf Association that took effect January 1 is important. In fact, it could be said as being very significant and not just as a simplification of the Rules we play by.

If you remember, in the final round of the U.S. Open last June, Dustin Johnson lined up a par putt on the fifth green and before he addressed the ball it rolled backwards, i.e. away from the hole, a tiny distance. Johnson immediately told a referee walking with him and fellow competitor Lee Westwood and the official simply asked if he had soled his putter behind the ball.

Johnson answered, “No,” which was quickly confirmed by Westwood. The official was satisfied and told Johnson to play on with no penalty.

Everyone thought that ended the incident until later as the duo walked on to the twelfth tee. Senior rules directors informed DJ there was a problem, namely there might be a penalty stroke added to his score for the incident seven holes previously.

According to the version of Rule 18-2 in effect at the time, on the putting green if a player caused a ball to move whether he meant to or not, he must put the ball back and add a stroke to his score. To complicate it further the rule contained the wording “more likely than not” as the standard the committee should apply in making their judgement.

The situation went from bad to worse since neither the average fan nor Johnson’s fellow competitors felt it neither sensible nor fair to overturn an on-the-spot referee’s judgement hours later. However, the Rules of Golf do specifically give the Committee the right to change a referee’s decision after a round based on their evaluation of the circumstances which often comes from studying videotape of the telecast.

A wait of seven holes to tell DJ he was in the crosshairs was beyond reasonable. The possibility of a penalty stroke left Johnson and the entire field in limbo as to where he and they stood in the most important championship of the year. To put it simply, the USGA wasn’t showing its best.

The incident proved again the myriad complications of the Rules of Golf cannot be passed off simply as the way to maintain the integrity of the game when it is a sport played out of doors with constantly changing conditions. Common sense should be factored in and thankfully Johnson, the phlegmatic South Carolinian, was able to overcome the uncertainty to win by four strokes though the record book shows the final margin was three.

Effective January 1 the USGA changed the language of Rule 18-2 so if the ball on the green is moved accidentally, whatever the cause, the player puts it back without a penalty…what I’m calling the “DJ Rule.” It fixes the previous inequity properly and is more realistic, more sensible and fairer.

Which brings us to the reasons why the DJ Rule is so significant.

First, the USGA was responsive to the howls of protest by everyone from golf fans to PGA Tour players. The Rule 18-02 change is eminently more realistic and perhaps best of all accomplished without waiting for the usual molasses-in-January quadrennial rules review. Quite properly the words “more likely than not,” used as justification in accessing the penalty on Johnson were dropped. No longer will Johnson or any player be convicted by inference and extrapolation rather than facts.

Secondly congratulations to the USGA who, without compromising the spirit of the game, are “significantly” reworking the Rules of Golf to make them more user-friendly with a preview of the changes next month.

Hopefully the redo will be along the lines of, “You start here and hit it until it goes in over there.”

Images courtesy of the USGA 

Fox Open Coverage

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Jordan Spieth won. He got a check for $1.8 million and has two majors this year, both before the age of 22. 

After those facts, which of course are the ones that that really count, we are left with side issues some of which occupied the media prior to the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay such as how the rookies at Fox Sports would do. Would the technical marvels used in televising football be seen as adding or detracting from the show and would the broadcast team be able to handle the pressure of a national open? 

The answers to both questions are a firm “yes,” though not without mistakes and problems. Overall they did just fine.

And best of all were Joe Buck and Greg Norman the marquee names heading up the on-air team. Buck is a professional and was able to do his job without falling into the bunker of pontification. Some, such as Jim Nance do sounding as though they are handing down the word to the great unwashed.

Corey Pavin, U.S. Open Champion in 1995, following key groups each day had to be prompted at first to talk about the circumstance of the shot a player was facing though he got better by Sunday’s round. He finally got it into his head he was the one with the best view of what was going on and we wanted to hear what he had to say. 

Greg Norman didn’t surprise me at all with his comments and analysis. He always has had no trouble applying his formidable talent to a situation either as a player or businessman and golf analysis seemed to be a natural for him. Tom Weiskopf didn’t contribute anything, remarkable or otherwise, except perhaps giving the impression he was running to be voted “master-of-the-obvious.” For the next go around Fox might think about cutting Weiskopf from the line up and giving more time to Brad Faxon or even Julie Inkster.

The biggest question for golf fans is not how ESPN/ABC will do covering the British Open, this being their last year, nor how CBS will do at the PGA Championship in August, but whether Spieth can win both and complete the grand slam.