The practice is mostly done, or should be done if you have any ideas of winning the U.S. Open. The chatter of all the big issues that threaten the game and biggest talents that threaten to win this week will mean less once the shots start to count. As we wait for Thursday morning, here’s a debrief on some of the bigger subjects, and one big favorite, after three days of practice at Los Angeles Country Club.
Inside the bubble
The more interesting golf story for the larger sports and news world is certainly the PGA Tour’s recent announcement of a merger with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. It has much wider implications for the future of golf beyond just one week’s U.S. Open. It’s a massive deal.
But inside the golf world? There seems to be exhaustion and exasperation at LACC, with a more immediate interest in the major championship. Part of this is the lack of details on what exactly happened and how this is all going to look — very few know, including maybe those involved in making the deal. So what good is it talking about it exclusively? That’s largely been the response of players who have had to deal with LIV questions for more than a year now.
The merger discussion is a frequent topic, of course, with rumors and rumblings about Patrick Cantlay’s saber rattling or other behind-the-scenes movements. But the overarching sentiment is that no one seems to know much other than 1) this is a huge story 2) I’m “betrayed” or bothered by it for X reason and 3) I don’t know how it’s all going to work. There’s not much else to say right now, even if everyone outside of the golf bubble is most interested in it. Strangely, it has sort of served as governor to keep some measure of focus and anticipation on the championship in front of us.
In responding to a question about the lack of diversity in this U.S. Open, and the work to increase diversity in the overall game, USGA CEO Mike Whan spoke about how much more aligned all the major golf organizations are now compared to the opportunity Tiger Woods presented for that goal some 25 years ago. It is true, that everything has seemed copacetic between the five-families in the last decade–maybe too much, if you’re an inquiring LIV advocate.
What’s clear is that some major challenges to this era of alignment are coming. The first is how a significant Saudi presence in one of the five families impacts the current status quo, from diversity to sponsor dollars and all the way down. Whan did not have much interest in hypotheticals or even understanding how a PIF-enity might impact his business, or maybe even also invest or partner with it.
The more immediate challenge to this era of good feelings and alignment is the rollback. Whan cited the collaborative process, and feedback having real influence on the proposal over the years. But it does not sound like the USGA is ready to abandon the timeline nor the proposal. On this, Fred Perpall, the current President of the USGA, summed up their position well.
“We’re at a time in our history where governance and government has been like at an all-time low. No one loves to be governed. We all love to be popular, but sometimes I think you have to really think about what’s right. Equipment manufacturers, they’ve done their jobs. The elite players, they’ve done their jobs, too. They’re getting better, stronger, faster.
“But with the USGA and the R&A as governance organizations, like we’re the folks that have to wake up and think about the long-term health of the game. This is directly connected to all the things we just talked about in terms of inclusivity and accessibility, the expense we’re embedding in the game. A lot of my friends that I would play golf with would say no one really wants this. Sometimes you have to have the courage to really do what’s right. I wish I could say to the public, our intent is pure. It’s not malicious. We’re not trying to do something to damage anyone.”
Conceding popularity and “alignment,” when it’s at a high, for this moment of governance seems worthwhile. TBD is what else is impacted among the five families beyond a rollback should the cooperation start to sour over the MLR.
The return of the king
If you can forget about the trifling little items of a global pandemic and the creation of a rival tour that changed golf forever in the intervening years, Tuesday felt like 2019 all over again thanks to Brooks Koepka. It was at that Pebble Beach U.S. Open that Koepka was the undisputed king of the major championships, going for three straight and strutting into a pre-tournament press conference with some half-concocted slight over a FOX promo and having proclaimed that majors were actually some of the easier events to win. He also outlined why he excels at U.S. Opens specifically. “I find it annoying even when I play with guys and they’re dropping clubs or throwing them or complaining, like telling me how bad the golf course is or how bad this is,” he said in 2019. “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just something we’ve all got to deal with. If you play good enough, you shouldn’t have a problem.”
Not only was the larger golf world turned upside down and threatened since then, but so was this approach from Koepka. Injuries threatened his career and he had his own excuses, real reasons, for a drop off at majors. A year ago, he bristled through a press conference at the U.S. Open with a LIV decision clearly weighing on his mind and he was gone to that tour the very next week. The decision seemed motivated in part by concern over whether his health would ever be the same again.
Now? He’s finished runner-up and first in the first two majors of 2023 and is back to strutting into U.S. Open press conferences with full conviction and belief in his approach that’s succeeded in the past. Speaking about thriving in the chaos of a U.S. Open, he delivered this on a past win in 2018. “Everybody was bitching, complaining,” he said of Shinnecock in 2018. “I just felt like it was — they were all so focused on the golf course they kind of forgot about what was going on, that they were there to play a major championship instead of, okay, the greens are pretty fast. But if you leave yourself with an uphill putt, it’s not too bad.” It’s precisely what he articulated in 2019 at the height of his majors run.
Koepka had little interest in discussing the most recent PGA Tour merger news or the future of golf, but he did light up (by his standards) when topics shifted to major championship golf and the preparation for it. It is where he’s most comfortable, and a spot where so many others are most uncomfortable.
What separates all-time legends from great players of an era is longevity. Koepka was the greatest major player of a five-year stretch but his health ended it and threatened his entire future to the point he hastily jumped to LIV. But he and his body have come roaring back, added a 5th major, and made it silly to list anyone else, even current superior talents like Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm, as the No. 1 option for a championship like this. Perhaps longevity can be part of his arc, unexpected after the last year or two but good for golf fans who want dominance. He’s talking again about a goal of reaching double-digit majors, and longevity is required for that.. It was incredible how it felt just like 2019 again.
Admirably, USGA championships chief and top setup man John Bodenhamer keeps reiterating the emphasis on LACC playing as George Thomas “intended” or would have wanted. Articulating a resistance to past approaches and pitfalls, he said, “We could have come in and really put a cookie cutter approach, a USGA thumbprint on this golf course and narrowed up all these fairways, grown a bunch of Bermudagrass, narrowed the fairways, put rough around all these greens.” It’s an interesting admission: Is this a shift in philosophy in the JB era? Is the “USGA thumbprint” now to have no thumbprint at all?
One way Thomas probably did not envision the course playing is with massive infrastructure and grandstands that come with a modern championship. The USGA is typically thoughtful with these placements in comparison to the bumper bowling of a PGA Tour event. But one trouble spot could be on the par-5 14th, where a grandstand left could come into play. LACC member and elite amateur Stewart Hagestad noted this to Golf Channel, and Koepka was out there plodding on the warning track earlier in the week.
Photo by Cameron Hurdus/The Fried Egg
It’s not the biggest outrage — maybe even within the build-out category, as some on the ground are perturbed about a “members-only” grandstand at the fabulous but limited viewing par-3 15th. But this pricey VIP area is a potential amusing backboard and side story on a perfect venue for the national championship.