The 2018 US Open Championship will be played at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, Long Island, New York. This event should be a “doozy” this year especially in light of the previous Open held there in 2004. Shinnecock is a classic links course amongst a number of famous links course on Long Island and this will be it’s fifth US Open Championship. After a debacle in 2004, Shinnecock suffered significant reputational damage as the entire golfing world witnessed a miserable concoction of dry, hot, windy weather coupled with a bungling USGA management team whereby the course was almost unplayable. There were jokes, that might be too far from the truth, that a wayward match could have burned the course down. The USGA seems to have an uncanny ability to mismanage aspects of their major championships and already this year is no exception (more on that later). In 2003 the US Open was held at Olympia Fields in Illinois and the average score for those players that played all four rounds averaged about +6. The USGA thought that Olympia might have been set up too easily for the professionals and decided to amp it up at Shinnecock. Fairways were narrowed, rough was grown and the greens were lightening fast. What was not planned for was the hot and dry windy weather where the greens could not hold an iron shot from anywhere. On Sunday in the hot and windy weather, the greens had to be “syringed” during tournament play to keep them from burning out. The course had been set up in a state that was virtually unplayable and this was obvious to the TV viewer. Personally, I had played the course about three weeks before the event and I remember having no difficulty hitting a six iron to the 7th green which I believe was about 165 yards. On US Open Sunday, I distinctly remember Ernie Els hitting a 7 or 8 iron to this seventh green and watched in utter amazement as the ball bounced in front of the green and raced through it to a horrible position way over the green. I was appalled that a great shot form a professional could end up there and I believe Els made at least a bogey if not worse. Only the winner, Retief Goosen, and Phil Mickelsen were under par for the tournament. The tenth place finisher was +7 for the tournament and the average score for those that completed the event in four rounds was +14 and I would bet that it was closer to +20 for the final day. The players were not happy and finger-pointing started everywhere for the condition of the course which impacted the careers of the maintenance crews and greenskeepers at Shinnecock. NBC was merciless in its criticism which was justified and many people believe fomented the eventual negotiation of future broadcasting rights from NBC to Fox. This is a horrible punishment for all of us as I will be watching the action this weekend with the MUTE button on.
It seemed to me that Shinnecock’s reputation for a US Open venue was so damaged that it would never host another championship. Fortunately, after a lot of bad blood and egotistical bruising and the lure of MONEY, the Open is back for 2018 and will also host the 2026 Open. I’m sure a lot of lessons were learned from the 2004 experience. There is new USGA management on the job and hopefully the course will be set up fairly as it is truly a great golf course. Although I wonder if there will be some interesting issues in the setup. Last year, the professionals decimated Erin Hills and the average score for the field was even par. Even par is usually the standard for the winner of this event but scoring at Erin Hills resembled any other PGA event. Shinnecock’s fairways will be a wider than the 2004 at 28-34 yards as compared to 15-25 yards for the 2004 championship. A shot in the rough will probably cost the player one stroke.
I have a personal story about playing at Shinnecock. We were invited to a gathering of executives at Shinnecock to play the course by a major investment bank. At the dinner the night before the event, we all put our business cards into a jar for the opportunity to have a personal consultation with Johnny Miller who would be on site the next day. My name was selected from the jar and the next morning I proceeded to the practice ground to redeem my consultation. There were 3 of us that had qualified. Of course, the rest of the group has shown up at the range to watch the proceedings adding to the pressure of what was to come. The first guy was a Brazilian executive who had little experience with golf and after dribbling seven or eight balls down the fairway, Johnny seemed a little flustered and asked him to meet one of his assistant professionals for further guidance. I am the next victim and I get to the tee and Johnny asks me what my problem is. I told him that I couldn’t hit draws with my driver and that my tee shots were either straight or faded to the right. He then asked me to hit a driver so he could take a look at what I was doing. I hit the first tee shot–a draw-about 260 yards down the middle of the fairway. The audience laughed and I looked up very perplexed and stated that I never do this. He then instructed me to hit another one and this shot went even further with a draw–this went on for a few more minutes until he had enough. My host said to me, “You’ve always needed an audience to perform.”
Before I make my predictions for the winner of the Open Championship, I would like to comment on another ridiculous USGA rule change that is sure to rankle the public and golf traditionalists. It’s been 10 years since Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in a Monday morning 18 hole playoff after Woods sank a 15 ft. putt on the 18th hole to catch Mediate in the Final Round. It was the scene of Tiger’s last major championship victory. An 18 hole playoff has always been required for the US Open championship but no more. The current playoff rule is being implemented this year for the US Open is a two hole playoff of best score. If the players are tied after the two holes, play continues under sudden death rules. I don’t know whose brilliant idea this was but the most amazing thing about it is that the current participants weren’t even aware of the rule. Players such as Jordan Speith, when asked about the new rule, stated, “Really! I didn’t know that.” The USGA is famous for this type of stuff and probably posted a note in the locker room. This rule was actually in place at this year’s US Women’s Open as the third hole of sudden death produced the winner. Personally, I’m a traditionalist and one hole shouldn’t determine the US Open Champion but I guess it’s all about money and the need to get to an answer on the final day.
Many of the experts are picking Dustin Johnson to win this event and there are many that say that Tiger will contend. Tiger is surely playing well and ready to pounce but the question will be whether he can hit fairways in this event. Last year, I picked Jordan Speith to win the Open Championship at Birkdale and he won it but this year his wonderful putting stroke has been balky. I look for him to recover his putting here. Other contenders will be Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson. Don’t be surprised if some of the older players play well such as Mickelsen, Els, Stricker make some noise. It’s going to be an interesting four days–I just need to figure out how to get an international feed–I will not listen to Joe Buck and his cast of incompetents.