9/21/20

Embrace the Unpredictable

Why U.S. Open setups need to evolve

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In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. Open, the most compelling storyline was how Winged Foot, a course with a rich history of inflicting pain and suffering on the world’s best golfers, would hold up against today’s breed of power players. It held up well—deep rough, severe greens, and blustery conditions had their effect—but the champion, Bryson DeChambeau, unmistakably overpowered the brawny old West Course. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: the game has evolved. So it’s time for U.S. Open setups to evolve, too.

Last time there was a U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Geoff Ogilvy won at 5 over. Thirty-two years before that, the famed “Massacre” took place. These championships established the course’s reputation as one of America’s most difficult tests of golf. But even after adding over 500 yards and growing the thickest rough possible, Winged Foot still looked small next to Bryson DeChambeau. The conventional U.S. Open recipe of narrowness, rough, and speedy greens played right into the big man’s thicc hands. It made power by far the most important skill, and no one should have been surprised when Sunday rolled around and two of the longest players in the world, DeChambeau and Matthew Wolff, had separated themselves from the pack.

The traditional U.S. Open setup used to put a premium on hitting fairways. But today, persimmon drivers and wound balls are long gone. These are the days of 460cc titanium-and-carbon heads, low-spin solid-core golf balls, launch monitors that make optimizing your swing more a science than an art, and books that give away every minute contour of every green. These tools have made what used to be an unpredictable game far more predictable, and that historical sea change was on full display at Winged Foot. So it stands to reason that the best way to challenge today’s players is to throw them into as many dicey situations as possible.

What makes a golf course unpredictable?

There are several ways to create unpredictability in today’s elite game, and Winged Foot possesses a few of them already. The firm turf and undulating greens we saw this past week are excellent tools for making golfers uneasy. They magnify the importance of positioning and can trick players into attacking from poor positions. But firmness and contour are just two of many challenges that a U.S. Open should present.

Of course, nature is the best setup crew of all. Rolling terrain creates uneven lies and multiple variables that players must consider, especially regarding distance and shot shape. (Unfortunately, Winged Foot’s topography is what it is: relatively flat.) Another wrecker of havoc, wind, is the single greatest intensifier in championship golf. (But, as we learned on Thursday and Saturday this past week, you can’t always rely on it to show up.)

In addition to whatever natural advantages a course has, there are a few setup tactics that can be implemented anywhere. For one, contoured short-grass surrounds create fear and doubt on approach shots, as players have to worry about a misplayed ball tumbling 20+ yards away from the target. These kinds of surrounds also introduce more complex short-game questions. At Winged Foot, however, the USGA employed dense rough around the spectacular greens. Essentially, this created a giant velcro strip that caught errant shots and kept them in play. So when players had an approach from a bad lie or angle, they could rest assured that nothing too unexpected would occur.

Rough is obviously a key factor in championship setup—not just its length, but its consistency. At Winged Foot, the rough was long and gnarly, no doubt. But more importantly, it was evenly cut, so its effect on recovery shots was relatively one-dimensional. This setup choice is what tilted the scales decisively toward the bombers. As Matthew Wolff showed on Saturday, posting a 65 in spite of hitting just two fairways, you can predict the behavior of thick, lush, five-inch rough as long as you drive it far enough to have a wedge or a short iron in your hands most of the time. The ball simply comes out dead and knuckles up to the green. Conversely, the same rough is devastating for shorter hitters, who won’t often be using high-lofted clubs and don’t have the requisite swing speed to power through the thick stuff. So it’s time for the USGA and everyone else in golf to realize that Winged Foot’s style of long, manicured rough does not level the playing field between the Cameron Champs and the Brendon Todds. Quite the opposite.

Less dense, less consistent rough is one compelling alternative. Long hitters wouldn’t be able to predict the spin and trajectory of their wedge approaches as well, and short hitters would have a better chance of catching up from far back.

But at courses where wispy rough is not part of the agronomic plan, a lower cut—say, three inches—could do the trick. For high-speed, low-spin players, one of the toughest, most unpredictable shots is out of rough of that height. Sure, it gives players an opportunity to pull off a stunning recovery, but it also opens up the chance that they might misjudge a flier and launch it miles over the green. These kinds of in-between lies could be found in only a few places at Winged Foot during the U.S. Open, and predictably, they were extremely unpredictable.

If you're an elite golfer with a wedge in your hands, you probably feel better about the lie on the left than the one on the right

The major that most embraces the unpredictable is the Open Championship. Firm turf, wind, and tilted playing surfaces are hallmarks of golf’s oldest existing tournament. But maybe the most underrated feature of the Open is its wispy rough, which can cause fits even from seemingly good lies. Shots from this type of grass can come out left, right, hot, or dead. This uncertainty places a big emphasis on hitting the fairway—a bigger emphasis, certainly, than we saw at Winged Foot.

With all these layered challenges, the Open seems to have weathered the distance boom better than its fellow major championships. It has maintained at least a semblance of balance and a more equitable test for bombers and plodders alike. At the Open, varied playing styles are celebrated, not suppressed. Just consider the recent winners of the Open and the U.S. Open. At one tournament, any type of golfer can win; at the other, power is a prerequisite. This is not a coincidence. It’s a result of setup decisions.

Driving distance ranks of the past ten years of U.S. Open and Open champions

So while narrow fairways and long rough might produce higher scores to par, unreliable conditions create more testing situations for today’s best players. The USGA got halfway there this past week. Firm turf allowed Winged Foot’s world-class greens to shine. But what was missing was a sense of genuine unpredictability, especially off the fairways and around the greens. So if the U.S. Open wants to be the “ultimate test” instead of just the “toughest test” (to par), it will have to update its approach to setup, just as Bryson DeChambeau and company have updated their approach to the game.