As play got underway on Friday morning at the U.S. Open, the USGA sent out a media briefing. “Water was applied to putting greens as needed to maintain turf health,” read a section titled “Water Management.” “[The greens] will be reviewed between the morning and afternoon waves and will be syringed as necessary.” The verb “syringe” refers to a process of applying a small amount of water to a putting surface in order to keep speed and firmness in check. Basically, USGA officials expected that they’d want to rein in the difficulty of The Country Club in the middle of the second round.
They expected correctly. Winds swirled throughout the morning, drying out the turf. As afternoon tee times started, images began circulating on social media of grounds-crew members dragging hoses across Brookline’s small, tilted greens and applying a fine base of spray.
— Jason Shanahan (@Shanny1976) June 17, 2022
The optics weren’t great. Some fans worried that the midday spritzing wasn’t fair to players in the morning wave. (Of course, those players had themselves benefited from the overnight watering of the greens.) Other viewers, primarily sickos such as myself, were disappointed that the USGA had decided to slow the course down just as it was getting spicy. High-scoring U.S. Opens can be a connoisseur’s delight, and the syringing was a buzzkill.
Calling all diehards: surround the greens at Brookline, link arms, and prevent the USGA crew from syringing the greens before the afternoon wave https://t.co/2qEkSNvkjN
— Garrett Morrison (@garrett_TFE) June 17, 2022
But the blowback to the USGA’s decision never quite reached #Gate proportions. Even though the winds at The Country Club died down and the greens appeared a touch slower, the course still played tough. The scoring average was 1.45 strokes over par in the afternoon compared to 2.50 strokes in the morning. It was a difference, but nothing to get worked up about. Plus, the pace of play remained reasonable, and all 156 players finished before nightfall. The headlines were about about the strong play of Collin Morikawa, Jon Rahm, and Rory McIlroy, not the course.
Welcome to the era of the Sensible U.S. Open Setup.
Until recently, U.S. Open setups weren’t always so sensible. Remember Saturday at Shinnecock Hills in 2018?
The basic situation wasn’t dissimilar from this past Friday at The Country Club. Throughout the morning wave, winds increased and scores climbed. But the USGA setup team, then led by CEO Mike Davis, left the greens alone—no syringing. In the early afternoon, things began to spiral. Phil Mickelson chased after and whacked a ball that was rolling off the false front of the 13th green. Zach Johnson, with gravity of a disaster-scene witness, told an interviewer, “They’ve lost the golf course.” Both moments earned immediate places in the pantheon of golf memes.
A remarkable sequence on Hole 13, where Phil Mickelson was assessed a two-stroke penalty for hitting a moving ball and ended up making a 10 on the hole. pic.twitter.com/kx6ieYiOGR
— U.S. Open (USGA) (@usopengolf) June 16, 2018
— UK Golf Guy (@ukgolfguy) June 16, 2018
As entertaining as the chaos was for fans, it was a PR headache for the USGA. Mainstream media outlets framed the day as a fiasco and yet another example of the governing body’s incompetence. Mike Davis more or less accepted this interpretation. “There were some aspects today where well-executed shots were not rewarded,” he said. “It was probably too tough this afternoon.”
But the third round at Shinnecock wasn’t an anomaly. It was the inevitable result of Mike Davis’s long-running effort to maintain the U.S. Open’s edge.
Dating back to Joseph Dey’s reign as the USGA’s executive director between 1934 and 1968, the tournament had been renowned for its ability to intimidate, even anger, the best golfers in the world. But as Davis rose through the USGA’s ranks in the 1990s, the balance of power between elite golfers and championship courses shifted. A technological revolution in equipment and instruction allowed players to overwhelm traditional U.S. Open setups. The Dey formula of 7,000 yards, par 70, pinched landing zones, and heavy rough lost its potency. So when Mike Davis started preparing courses for U.S. Opens in the 2000s, he tried some new tactics. He seemed to conclude that the secret to championship difficulty in the 21st century wasn’t narrow fairways or hack-out rough; it was ultra-firm greens.
But defending par through agronomy is a delicate art. At Chambers Bay in 2015, the baked-out greens rebelled, resulting in a Poa annua invasion and a weeklong chorus of complaints about wobbly putts and unappealing aesthetics. On Saturday at Shinnecock in 2018, player dissatisfaction reached a boiling point. The USGA decided to turn down the heat.
In March of the next year, the USGA brought on Jason Gore to inaugurate the position of Senior Director of Player Relations. Widely liked among both players and bureaucrats, Gore acted as a go-between and a peacemaker. As the 2019 U.S. Open approached, Mike Davis ceded his setup responsibilities to John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s level-headed Chief Championships Officer. In early interviews, Bodenhamer emphasized that he was working closely with Gore and seeking input from the pros.
The setup at Pebble Beach reflected this cautious, player-friendly stance. The greens were firm but not too firm; the pin positions were tough but not too tough. The course was still challenging because of narrow fairways and thick rough, but when the expected winds failed to materialize on the weekend, the occasional low score slipped through. Gary Woodland won at 13 under, and 31 players broke par for the tournament.
The next two U.S. Opens—at Winged Foot in 2020 and Torrey Pines in ’21—played slightly harder, but winning scores of -6 at both championships gave competitors little room to complain. The era of the Sensible U.S. Open Setup had begun.
Yesterday at The Country Club had all the ingredients for a bloodbath. The winds changed direction, howling out of the north, and there was no talk of syringing. The course itself, with its tiny greens and gnarly hazards and awkward blind shots, is one of the toughest in America, and it was ready to show why.
It ended up giving us a terrific day of major-championship golf. In order to hold the greens reliably, players had to be in the fairway; in order to attack most pins, they needed exact control of spin and trajectory. The purest ball-strikers, which on Saturday were Will Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick, stood out. Those who didn’t quite have it—Rory McIlroy, Joel Dahmen—had to grind to stay in the tournament. It was a true U.S. Open test.
But it didn’t have the air of danger that hung over Oakland Hill 1951 or Winged Foot 1974 or Shinnecock Hills 2018. The Country Club had been set up too carefully, too competently, to tilt off its axis. As the greens firmed up, they turned a lighter hue of green but never brown. And the pins were in sane spots. “I didn’t think [the pins] were overly difficult,” Denny McCarthy said. “I thought they were fair. Nothing, like, crazy on slopes.” The scoring average was 73.53, substantially higher than it had been on Thursday and Friday, but nowhere near the 75.33 Shinnecock produced on Saturday four years ago. No one shot in the 80s.
“It’s great,” Justin Thomas told the press afterwards. “I said to [caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay] walking up 18, ‘This is how a U.S. Open should be.’”
In the era of the Sensible U.S. Open Setup, this is likely as extreme as things will get. The players will be challenged but not infuriated, the course will be demanding but not monstrous, and the fans will be entertained but not whipped into a frenzy.
It’s probably a better championship now than it was before, but it’s not quite as fun.