Colin Byrne: Farcical US Open set-up twists the knife further for golf

Professionals must call out the organisers, the USGA, for again ruining a flagship event

 Dustin Johnson in the second hole during the controversial third round of the 118th US Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Dustin Johnson in the second hole during the controversial third round of the 118th US Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

 

Woops, they’ve done it again.

The USGA have managed to decimate their flagship event at the very same venue where they did the same thing 14 years previously. Poor Shinnecock Hills on eastern Long Island, what did it do to deserve such malevolent “promoters” as the United States Golf Association?

They should give up the course as a US Open venue and call in the professionals, the experts in setting up golf courses to challenge and entertain, because the amateur body just don’t “get it”.

The game of golf is in decline, there are fewer golfers today than there were yesterday. I wonder what message the bizarre sight of Phil Mickelson, one of America’s most successful and influential golfers of the past three decades, hitting a putt while his ball was in motion on the 13th green during the third round sends to those who may be undecided about playing the game of golf in the future?

Tee times had been reserved for Monday and Tuesday morning practice and hardly anyone showed up because they were sitting motionless on Highway 27 East, engulfed in Tradesmen’s vehicles heading the same direction to work on the Hamptons mansions., locally known as the “Trade Parade”.

It was a logistical problem that was somehow overlooked or underplayed by the organisers, creating a sense of panic through the locker room and into the caddie-shack. We were all preoccupied with being able to make our tee times on Thursday not how well we were going to perform.

Disarray did not confine itself to route 27, the classic “links” was about to be sabotaged yet again by the organisers due to an apparent lack of understanding of the subtle differences between the playing conditions of a championship golf course and that of a “crazy” or “putt putt” facility.

One is designed to be taken for what it is and played without expectation the other is meant to test the superior skills of elite golfers. It seems like the USGA need to go back to school to figure out which past-time they are directing into the future.

The whole concept of preparation and understanding of the new venue for most competitors was negated by the outrageous set-up of the course for the third round last Saturday. They might as well have shown up on the morning of the event and winged it as it resembled nothing of the course we had played during the week.

Phil Mickelson courted his own controversy on Saturday by hitting a moving ball. Photo: Dennis Schneidler/USA Today
Phil Mickelson courted his own controversy on Saturday by hitting a moving ball. Photo: Dennis Schneidler/USA Today

Many must have been wondering why they had spend up to two hours getting from the official hotel to the course on Monday and Tuesday in order to practice for golf when in fact they would be playing a new game that the USGA invented last Saturday which rewarded whimsy and good fortune and had no premium for talent and dexterity.

In a typed missive that we received as caddies upon registering for the 118th US Open Championship, I was intrigued by the note on playing conditions: “We are very pleased with the agronomic condition of the golf course. We hope and intend to present a firm and fast golf course, weather permitting. Ensuring ideal playing conditions for the 156 players participating in the U.S. Open Championship is always one of our primary goals.”

The weather permitted. The wind blew friskily for the entire first round, but luckily it had rained the previous day. The course was extremely tough with a scoring average of over six over par. This was because of the strength of the wind, nothing you could fault the USGA with. The wind abated on Friday afternoon, thus favouring that side of the draw, such is life, nothing the USGA could do about that.

The clanger came on Saturday when the nature of the course changed so dramatically due to a conscious decision by the USGA to make it fast and firm that the concept of creating a fair test of the cut-makers’ undoubted skills was abandoned. The result was that they got two players who had made the cut on the mark going out in the final group on Sunday because they had played a receptive course with some inane pin positions.

There is a huge police presence at Majors. Police officers follow the named players as a deterrent. The lesser players are at the mercy of the unruly and frequently obnoxious New York mob.

My man Rafa [Cabrera-Bello] had abuse hurled at him on the fourth green. He let the first insult go but jumped over the ropes to challenge the second comment. No police, no security, no USGA assistance, he was on his own and thankfully well-equipped to deal with the perpetrator. Aggressive heckling brings another dimension to the challenge that you can expect in a modern US Open on the east coast of America.

USGA CEO Mike Davis gave a mealy-mouthed and backhanded admission of getting it wrong in a television interview as the course superintendents were hosing the course down like it had suffered a wildfire. I am not whingeing on behalf of a cossetted cabal of elite golfers, but appealing merely from the perspective of respect for their skill and the integrity of the great trophy they were playing for.

Mickelson made his statement on the 13th hole on Saturday as he ran after a putt that was taking off on the south-west wind and hit it while in motion back towards the hole. Unfortunately, he backed down after the round instead of explaining why he did what he did. He appeared appalled by the way the course had been presented.

I am finding it hard to see how last Saturday’s farce is going to “grow” the game of golf. Or maybe I don’t understand what it is that brings people to the game. But I can’t imagine that the live spectators and television viewers got value for money watching the world’ s best golfers playing like it was their first time on a golf course.

Dustin Johnson reacts to his missed putt on the 18th. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Dustin Johnson reacts to his missed putt on the 18th. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

It is time that more than one professional has the gumption to say what they think in public instead of the lone voice of Zach Johnson who expressed his disappointment at last Saturday’s irresponsible set up by the game’s strategic directors. For the sake of the future of the game everyone who understands and has some influence needs to speak out. This should to be golf’s “Me Too” moment.

I can assure you I did not hear one voice of agreement for what the authorities did to the third round of the 118th US Open around the locker room last Sunday. The feeling that what had happened was a disgrace was unanimous. It was so prevalent that I had to suggest to my boss Rafa to try to block out the mutterings of carnage of the previous day and focus on the last round.

In defence of his candidness he had tweeted his feelings. I do not always agree with a group that can often appear pampered and overpaid, but in this case I support their thoughts if not their politically-correct lack of action.

Of course the USGA privately realised the error of their ways last weekend because they turned on the sprinklers and set the final round pins in the middle of every green. But the damage had been done to the 118th US Open and here was going to be no reconciliation.

As guardians of the game the authorities have a responsibility to ensure its future. Their presentation of the hallowed Shinnecock Hills course last Saturday was an act of vandalism that does not befit the course or the championship.

It is time for the professionals to run the US Open to get some perspective on a game that is being misled by the very people we have entrusted to guide us into the future.

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