“Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” Every year at the U.S. Open, the USGA finds itself in a no-win situation because of the golf world’s obsession with par.
Over the past six months, in preparation for this week’s U.S. Open, Pebble Beach Golf Links has narrowed its fairways by 30 percent, cultivated thick rough, and staked out new back tees. These measures have been taken in order to protect a figurative, antiquated, and obsolete number: par.
The USGA introduced the term “par” in 1911 and defined it as “the score that an expert player would be expected to make for a given hole. Par means expert play under ordinary weather conditions, allowing two strokes on the putting green.” It has become an essential concept in the golf lexicon because it allows fans to follow along easily with an ongoing competition. Over time, it has morphed into a determinant of difficulty, especially in professional tournament golf.
But the use of the concept of par is perhaps the biggest farce in golf.
Consider three USGA championships hosted at historic venues in 2018. Laura Davies won the U.S. Senior Women’s Open, shooting 16 under par at Chicago Golf Club. Miguel Angel Jimenez triumphed at the Senior Open Championship at the Old Course with a 12-under score. And Brooks Koepka captured the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills at 4-under. To a casual observer, it might appear that Chicago Golf Club was the easiest setup. A closer look, however, reveals that Davies, Jimenez, and Koepka each won with the same total score, 276.
The first major problem with par is that it’s rigid. If a professional played Pebble Beach on a calm, sunny 70-degree morning after half an inch of rain, his standard for a “good score” would be vastly different than on an afternoon of 30 mph winds and bone-dry conditions. Par doesn’t account for the round’s playing conditions or setup.
It also hasn’t kept up with the times. Since the advent of par in 1911, technological advancements have expanded the dimensions of the game. For instance, until recent decades, the iconic 6th and 18th holes at Pebble Beach held true as par 5s, traditionally defined. Both required three well-struck shots between the tee and the green. This year at Pebble Beach, two ideal shots would get every player in the field to the 6th and 18th greens. In the modern professional game, there is no reason to consider these holes par 5s. Because the governing bodies have failed to regulate equipment properly, our most iconic U.S. Open venue has only one true par 5, the 14th.
As much as golf would benefit from doing away with par entirely, we have to admit that it’s not going anywhere. It’s too entrenched in the way people watch tournaments and understand good scores and bad ones. So what options do we have?
The easiest and most logical thing for the USGA to do is to update the par number to fit today’s game. For the 2019 U.S. Open, Pebble Beach isn’t a par 71; it’s a par 69. This number provides more insight into the course’s setup. On a calm, windless day, great players are shooting a couple under, not five or six. If the wind blows and the course has firm turf and tucked pins, players will be over par. Yes, everyone will find a par under 70 an odd sight. But it sure beats manipulating courses to fit an outdated number.
This solution could stretch beyond Pebble Beach to weekly PGA Tour events. Many have labeled Trinity Forest “too easy” because it has yielded winning scores of -23 the past two AT&T Byron Nelsons. If we reconsider the course’s par, though, we see a familiar scenario. On the par-5 1st and 7th, the whole field can reach the green with two good shots. Those are par 4s. Similarly, most players can drive the 300-yard par-4 5th. Many would say that’s too long to be a par 3, but in the early 1900s, plenty of courses had par 3s that required drivers or fairway woods from the best players.
These changes would drop Trinity Forest’s par from 71 to 68. Suddenly, the last two winners of the Byron Nelson would have finished at 11-under. This number would give us an accurate sense of how the course played. Both the 2018 and 2019 tournaments were characterized by rain, soft conditions, low winds, and cautious setups by PGA Tour officials.
As long as we have to live with par, we might as well adjust it to keep up with modern distance gains. Instead of doctoring courses, often to the detriment of the daily golfers who play them the other 51 weeks of the year, why not simply change a number?
If we don’t, the U.S. Open will continue to be a dog and pony show with USGA officials desperately adjusting course setup from day or day in order to avoid criticism that they have either “lost the course” or “gone soft.” The one thing they haven’t tried is taking a U.S. Open to a course with a par below 70. That number is the only barrier they have left untouched. Maybe it’s time to break it.