Men’s professional golf is at a once-in-a-lifetime crossroads as the U.S. Open descends on a venue foundational to the game in America, The Country Club in Brookline. The Fried Egg Staff got together to discuss some potential themes and questions surrounding the third men’s major of 2022, and offer some not-so-expert picks to win.
Has the U.S. Open lost its edge?
Andy Johnson: A little bit, yes. I think we are in the Social Media era of setup. It’s easy to understand why the USGA has gotten a little less severe with their setup, as every player has a massive megaphone at their disposal with their social media accounts. It used to be player complaints were filtered through the onsite media’s lens. Media could decipher a bad day from a legitimate complaint or ask a few other players before airing the complaint. Now it’s a matter of a player opening up their phone and letting loose. It’s a different world and the USGA has a role in the game larger than just putting on the U.S. Open. The players’ angst, whether valid or not, towards the USGA was causing their brand harm not only at the U.S. Open but with their other initiatives and with fans. So if you think about it that way, I think the softer U.S. Open setups we have seen since Shinnecock make sense.
Garrett Morrison: To be more specific, the U.S. Open has lost its tendency to go off the rails. The 2010s were an era of experimentation for the tournament. Between 2015 and 2018 in particular, USGA CEO Mike Davis tried to rethink U.S. Open setup. Davis was okay with wide playing corridors, but he sought to defend par with baked-out greens. At Chambers Bay in 2015 and Shinnecock Hills in 2018, this mixture led to batty, unpredictable events that some fans (including yours truly) loved but most players hated. And as Andy indicated above, it was the players’ opinion that ultimately mattered. Davis ceded his position as setup czar to John Bodenhamer in 2019 and left the USGA last year. So far, Bodenhamer’s U.S. Open setups—Pebble Beach in 2019, Winged Foot in 2020, and Torrey Pines in 2021—have been “tough but fair,” competent, and conservative. The rough is gnarly but not too gnarly, the greens are firm but not too firm, and so on. The tournaments have been strong tests of golf, and player complaints have died down, but the zest of potential catastrophe is gone, and much of my excitement for the U.S. Open has gone with it. I prefer chaos.
Brendan Porath: It’s hard to say an edge is lost, but there’s been some dulling over the past three years and that’s probably how they want it. No explosive accusations of trickery or unfairness and good, clean championships from Pebble to Winged Foot to Torrey. But as a consumer, it’s been less interesting without that tension between the tournament administrators and the talent, something that really made the U.S. Open stand out on its own, for better or worse depending on who you ask.
Will Knights: Yes, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As our recent podcast series on Robert Trent Jones showed, the method to the U.S. Open madness may not have been the best thing for golf. It created an identity of difficulty based on poor architecture and setup, not because of proper conditioning. I’d much rather a golf course separate the best golfer than watch the entire field hack it out of the hay all week.
Does LIV vs. PGA Tour threaten to overwhelm this major? Is there too much attention being devoted to it?
Meg Adkins: If you’re the USGA, you sure are hoping the chaos quiets down. The Phil Mickelson press conference, while uncomfortable and awkward, didn’t completely overwhelm the narrative on Monday. Any drama between PGA loyalists and LIV defectors hasn’t come to fruition, and it seems to be business as usual on Tuesday. While Brooks seems to think too much attention is being devoted to it, I’ll just reiterate that last week LIV succeeded in a way no other threat to the Tour has in its entire history. It successfully held a rival tournament/exhibition/circus, and I hate to break it to Brooks, LIV isn’t going away anytime soon.
Brendan: LIV has overwhelmed this major, but only through the practice round days. All the debate, drama, and agita usually reserved for some course setup choice that tends to dominate the pre-championship days at the U.S. Open has been reserved by the LIV vs. PGA Tour battle. But as you walk around, this is what the players, caddies, media, and general stakeholders are also talking about privately, almost nonstop. Once the actual competition begins, it will recede, if only for four days before presumably a new round of player announcements are made for Portland. But it’s been a massive story on the ground so far and for good reason.
Andy: It has overshadowed the lead-up without a doubt. I think it will be a fixture of this championship and with good reason. This is the biggest story in golf since the emergence of Tiger Woods.
Is there a qualifier you want to watch or care about?
Will: I’m sure this will be a popular answer but I’m truly interested in Fran Quinn. Qualifing for a major championship at 57 years old is beyond impressive. He’ll almost certainly be heading home on Friday afternoon but what an accomplishment.
Andy: Of course, qualifiers are part of the fabric of the U.S. Open. A few that I have my eye on are Harry Hall, who has been on a bit of a tear, the recently turned professional Burly Boy Chris Gotterup, and an amateur you will hear a lot about because of the Ouimet parallels, son of Thorbjorn Thorbjornsen, Michael Thorbjornsen. I think all of these players have the talent and credentials to be a factor in the championship.
Meg: I’ll be keeping an eye on Sam Stevens. A member of the 2018 national championship team at Oklahoma State, Stevens has been slowly moving up the ranks on the All Pro Tour and PGA Tour Latinoamerica, is in the midst of a solid year on the Korn Ferry Tour, and broke through on the PGA Tour in February when he made the cut at The Honda Classic after Monday qualifying into the tournament. Sam is a fellow Wichitan like myself, and if you know anything about golf in the area, you know the name Stevens. Grandfather Johnny Stevens, father Charlie, aunt Cathy Tilma, cousin Kate Tilma, and Sam are all Kansas Amateur champions. The family owns 16 state championships which is believed to be a national record. It’s been 53 years since a member of the family played in a U.S. Open, when Johnny Stevens was a participant in 1969, and Sam will have the whole family behind him as he gets his turn this week.
Is this the men’s major to be least excited about this year, *relatively* speaking?
Andy: Well, Tiger ain’t here so that’s a starting point but in fairness to The Country Club, it’s going against a stacked roster of venues which it falls short against on design merits. The other issue is that many of the best players in the game we are waiting on to fire on all cylinders. Two of last year’s major winners, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa, haven’t factored in the first two majors and then some of the older guard have either been distracted having a romance with Riyadh or just plain bad (Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka, etc). So yes, it’s the least appealing major as of now! The beauty of tournament golf is that can all change in short order. Say we get a LIV Golf supporter vs. a PGA Tour loyalist showdown on Sunday afternoon? The Country Club could provide an event we remember for years.
Brendan: An impossibly subjective question with probably an unduly harsh assessment no matter what you choose. The Masters and Old Course Open are not options. The excitement around Southern Hills from the GCA community did elevate the PGA, and they obviously got a primo winner. This is a venue quite worthy of the national championship in a major market that’s not had a major in awhile. I don’t think I could label it “least exciting” given everything we get so many weeks on Tour. Punting!
Garrett: Augusta is Augusta, Southern Hills is a more intriguing course and a better example of the Gil Hanse Way, and St. Andrews is St. Andrews. Brookline was always going to lose the hype battle. But what’s working in this U.S. Open’s favor is that, so far in 2022, the men’s majors have been somewhat underwhelming. Scottie Scheffler’s runaway win at the Masters was impressive but basically a foregone conclusion by Saturday evening, and the PGA Championship was listless until its final hour. So The Country Club is in a good spot to underpromise/overdeliver.
What are your opinions of TCC as a U.S. Open venue compared to others? Are there holes or course element you’re most intrigued by?
Will: It’s far from the best but also far from the worst, so I think that’s probably a good thing for the USGA. I don’t need to see it every other year but I think once every 20 years is a pretty cool idea to keep returning to one of the places in golf with incredible history. There are a lot of really really good holes at TCC and I can’t wait to watch Nos. 3, 8, 10, and 14 in the championship routing. The par 5s are especially interesting given how difficult it will be to score well consistently on those holes. I will be genuinely excited to when someone makes an eagle on either the 8th or 14th this week. That doesn’t happen often in professional golf because of how often we see eagles.
This week’s U.S. Open course, The Country Club in Brookline, is one of the toughest courses in the country.
A significant part of the challenge occurs at two unique, monster par 5s that will present the world’s best with multiple tests. pic.twitter.com/FsLHcRww1w
— The Fried Egg (@the_fried_egg) June 12, 2022
What are your expectations for Phil Mickelson this week? More personally, any hopes for him?
Will: I expect him to shoot 77-76, deny media requests both days, and charter a flight home on Friday evening. I’ll cede my time on my hopes for him.
Brendan: The expectations for Phil are extremely low. That said, this has been an almost ideal re-introduction to public golf, his bizarre and morose press conference notwithstanding. The fans fully embraced him and he was reveling in it with the usual thumbs-up and entertaining engagement. It was business as usual. But his game, however, is likely in a less than standard place and it’s hard to see him being competitive, perhaps even with the cut line. I don’t have an particular hopes for him — it would add to the circus should he somehow contend, but it would feel off at this particular moment.
Meg: I’ll be surprised if he’s above the bottom third of the leaderboard after Thursday and Friday. Maybe he’ll find a glimmer of form and show us flashes of Kiawah Phil once he’s on the course and not behind a mic, but I don’t expect that to be the case. If Phil’s not around this weekend, then Brooks may get his wish and not have to hear much about LIV for a couple of days.
Pick to flame out early at this TCC test?
Will: Just for fun I’m going to say Brooksy. He seems out of sorts both on and off the golf course.
Garrett: Rory. Fool me once, etc. Also, I don’t see him getting along with this course. Also, I hope he proves me wrong.
Meg: Patrick Cantlay, the third best player in the world right now, keeps his underwhelming major performance streak (only two top 10s since 2018) going with his second missed cut in a major this year.
Brendan: Collin Morikawa has not been especially sharp this year, and he’s now dabbling with changes to his usual and preferred shot shape?
Andy: Bryson. He’s coming off an injury, he is busy romancing with LIV and he has only played more than two rounds in the no cut Tournament of Champions and the round robin Dell Match Play. It’s crazy that Bryson is the 29th ranked player in the world right now.
Your pick to win the U.S. Open?
Will: Justin Thomas (-7)
Brendan: After five straight top 10s to begin his U.S. Open career, Xander Schauffele gets his first major win. His tee-to-green game meets the demands of this course and championship, and he seems mentally capable of dealing with what the USGA throws at you, which not all top players in the world can say. He’s also been #trending in the right direction, while several other of the top-ranked players are working through middling seasons. The X-man gets it done.
Garrett: Tony Finau. I think power will be more important this week than people think, and because of the small greens, putting won’t play as big of a role as usual. That’s a good combination for Big Tone.
Meg: (Whispered so quietly she hopes no one hears) Rory.
Andy: I’m not overthinking this one and am taking the No. 1 ranked player in the world, Scottie Scheffler. He missed the cut at Southern Hills and I think that will give him some fuel at Brookline, a course that should fit his game as someone who is strong in every facet and wipes out those with a weakness here or there.