Shinnecock shemozzle and the futile quest for a real US Open

As the winds blew and the greens dried out across Shinnecock Hills, the futile attempt to protect par against the US Open field began to unravel on Saturday.

The winds were only marginally more than predicted but in a sign of how close to the edge the course was set up, the golfers who teed off later in the day were playing, or more appropriately unplaying a completely different golf course to the Shinnecock Hills that was played in the morning.

Difficult yet make-able putts from inside 10-feet became knee-tremblers that made fools of the best golfers in the world.

So much so that one player became so frustrated he flipped out and hit a golf ball while it was still moving after it missed the hole and set about rolling its way off the green.

It had happened before and wasn’t supposed to happen again.

Shinnecock Hills became a shemozzle at the 2004 US Open when the par-3 7th green turned into a dinner plate. Kevin Stadler’s putt from three-feet finished in the back bunker from where he’d played his previous golf shot.

Course staff were instructed to syringe and eventually water the greens to ensure the golf course, especially the 7th green was playable for the rest of the field.

The USGA are the organisers of the US Open golf tournament and because it is one of three major golf championships based in the USA, it’s always distinguished itself from the others by making it the toughest test in golf.

And after Brooks Koepka tore apart a windless, and therefore defenceless Erin Hills in 2017 finishing 16-under par across the four rounds, the USGA were keen to return to a tough test of golf and make it a real US Open once again.

A real US Open is commonly thought of as one where breaking par for the four rounds is difficult.

A winning score may be under par, but it won’t be much better, and only a handful of players will be able to achieve the feat. And hopefully, yet flawed in reasoning, it’ll be the best golfer in the field.

“Be careful what you wish for. We’ve all been asking for a real U.S. Open again. So I guess we got one for sure this week,” said Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion (with a score of 1-over par) who found himself one behind the leaders after the chaotic third round.

It’s debatable whether this sort of golf, this real US Open yields the best golfers at all. Not to mention whether it is fun to watch or play.

But either way, how do you set up a golf course for a real US Open in the age of 300-yard drives?

What does the golf course look like for the toughest test in golf when you have golfers playing lob wedges into 450-yard par-4s and 6-iron second shots on par-5s?

The USGA have employed a number of techniques to protect par over the last decade.

Firstly, they can build new, stupidly long golf courses; 7000+ yard golf courses should do it. That way you can ensure the par-5s are well out of reach in two and get the pros to use a long iron or two into a par-4 now and then.

Extending the length of a golf course is also an option, but one that is often literally out-of-bounds for many courses and not financially viable for many others.

Secondly, you narrow the fairways and grow the rough.

Give these guys smaller landing areas to land the golf ball and if they miscue, ensure the rough is long enough to offer little or no chance for recovery; just a hack out sideways if you’re lucky.

Thirdly, you can speed up the greens to 13, 14 or 15 on the stimpmeter, ensuring a minimum of five-hour rounds and risking what happened at Shinnecock Hills.

Things got too quick, and very soon too silly.

So that’s what we have, lengthening, narrowing, growing and/or speeding up the greens. That’s what we have to defend par against the might of these incredible athletes and modern golf technology.

Or, maybe they could start to roll some of the golf technology back a little, at least for the pros.

Just like they did in baseball when beefed up, juiced up, sluggers started sending the balls well out of the stadium. Baseball rolled back to the wooden bats, maintaining some balance in the battle between batter and pitcher.

Reducing the distance the golf ball can travel, reducing the driver head size or placing limits on shaft specifications to reduce club head speed is an option. And a financially sound one.

This would at least give some of the classic, well designed golf courses like Shinnecock Hills a chance in the battle between golf course and golfer.

And arguably a golf course and tournament much more befitting of a real US Open.

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