The Biggest Show in Golf

The Biggest Show in Golf
Photo/Al Tielemans
During the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, greenkeepers tried to slow down the greens by putting on water during the final round on Sunday.

When the U.S. Open returns to the Merion Golf Club in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia this June, the intent of the United States Golf Association will be to determine our country’s national champion. There will be 156 players teeing off on Thursday, and God willing on Sunday night one will be left standing, and he might even have enough strength remaining to lift the trophy.

The U.S. Open isn’t merely an examination of a player’s ability to hit the ball, to pitch it, to chip it or to putt it. Sure, the Open is a test of skill. But even more so, it’s a test of will. The USGA is trying to find the player who produces winning shots on a golf course set on a precipice, at the very edge of playability. They are trying to find the player who, with hands shaking, knees knocking and stomach churning, survives the boot camp of this most arduous of all the major championships.

At Merion, as it does at classic courses as Oakmont, Olympic and Bethpage Black, the USGA transforms the bucolic to the brutal, the tranquil to the treacherous, the demanding to the demonic. No other major championship, not the Masters, not the British Open, not the PGA Championship, seeks to get so deeply between the ears of its competitors. Or is it the combatants? The U.S. Open isn’t so much a mine field as a mind field. Disaster lurks, deliberately, and the USGA asks two questions: How do you avoid it? If it strikes, how do you deal with it?

“The U.S. Open works your psyche at least a month out, maybe even at the start of the year,” says Ray Floyd, the 1986 winner at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. “You start thinking, How am I going to practice for it? Do I have a chance to win on that particular course with the way they set things up? What is my attitude going to be coming in?”

That’s a way of saying in so many words that a chief component of the U.S. Open is dread. But let’s let Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA and the man charged with setting up Open courses since 2006, tell you how he defines the Open.

“That’s a good basic question,” says Davis, whose Open setups have been largely hailed by the game’s best players as stern but fair. “Very simply, it is this country’s national championship. It started out that way in 1895, and has grown to be a truly international event. It’s the only one of our championships which is truly based solely on skill. We don’t care if you are male, female, junior, senior, amateur, professional tour player, a club pro or whatever. It’s all about an open championship and for those good enough to qualify, then it’s a 72-hole event to identify the champion.

“From the very get-go it started out to be a very stern test of golf. One of our goals is that it is a very tough test of golf, that it tests every aspect of the game from your ability to strike the golf ball, your ability to manage your way around the golf course, your ability to make recovery shots, your ability to handle yourself under pressure. “We hope that not only is it tough, but it is a fair test. When a player executes a good shot they are rewarded, if they hit an average shot it’s an average result, if they hit a poor shot then there are consequences. So that is how I would describe the U.S. Open.”

Since the Open began at the Newport Country Club in 1895, it’s been that stern test, and has become a tournament defined in the modern era of the game by courses set up to be firm and fast on the short grass, and ball-swallowing in the long grass. Throw some wind into the mix and the shot-making becomes more about shot-creating. For the U.S. Open, a player’s most valuable asset is his head.

As Tom Watson, the 1982 winner at Pebble Beach, said a very long time ago: “It takes courage to win the U.S. Open, more courage than any other tournament.”

Each year, more than 8,000 players with a maximum handicap index of 1.4 try to make it through the Open’s qualifying process to play against the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. Former U.S. Open winners and many professional golfers are exempt from qualifying by their world rankings and other result-based classifications, but everyone else starts in local qualifiers and moves up to regional qualifiers where the top finishers earn their way into the Open. But the participants aren’t really playing against their fellow golfers, they’re playing against the course. And at the U.S. Open they are playing against a course set up to its extreme, equipped with defenses that repel their shots and rattle their brains.

Certainly in the age of television there has been as much talk about the difficulty of an Open course as there has been about the skill of the Open champion. Millions of high handicappers have come to expect the Open courses to humble the world’s best players, to make the game as difficult for them as it is for everyone else. And when you put a course on the edge, you are courting disaster, and the U.S. Open has had a few of them.

In 1974 Hale Irwin won the Open at Winged Foot in what was labeled as the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” The rough at Winged Foot was long and gnarly, and the sloping greens were brass-knuckle hard and ice-rink fast. Irwin won the first of his three U.S. Open titles there with a seven over par score.  Irwin was a consummate Open player who kept the ball in play off the tee, hit the middle of greens and putted sensibly.

“When I got to Winged Foot more than half the field was grumbling and whining about the course,” says Irwin. “I thought that maybe 75 percent of those guys were taking themselves right out of contention before the first shot. The Open is a mental giant. I was pretty good about wrestling with that giant.”

In 1983 the rough around the greens at Oakmont was so thick that players were reduced to scything the ball into play. “In ’83 they had rough so high right next to the greens that if you missed by one yard you were just chopping the ball out,” says Floyd. “It took away your short game skills. It was a wedge and a whack. I’m all for difficult conditions, all top players are.

But not to the point that they become unfair. You don’t want your skills to be taken away.”

In 1998 there was a particularly perplexing situation on the 18th green of the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Tom Meeks, who had succeeded P.J. Boatwright as the Open’s setup man, had put the pin for the second round just past the midpoint of the green on the left-hand side, where Boatwright had set it. Meeks knew that it was an edgy pin, but he had his philosophy and was sticking to it. “I don’t want to purposefully set a golf hole up to where it’s unfair,” said Meeks then. “But if I’m going to err, I want to err on the side of too tough rather than not tough enough.”

Payne Stewart came to the 18th on Friday as the leader of the tournament when he hit his approach shot eight feet above the hole. He knew that if he did not make that putt for birdie, he would be in trouble. His putt got just past the pin, picked up the slope and rolled 25 feet past, leading to a three-putt green. Tom Lehman struck a wedge that hit near the pin but had just enough backspin to send it meandering back to the front of the green, 50 feet from the pin.  He four-putted from there. Kirk Triplett three-putted when his first putt from 30 feet below the hole came right back to where he struck it. Meeks later admitted his regret that he had embarrassed both the players and the USGA for that mistake.

In 2001 at Southern Hills the severely sloping ninth and 18th greens had to be mowed differently than the others and watered frequently because well-struck approach shots and deftly putted balls would not stay close to the hole.

But the defining moment of disaster came at the 2004 Open at the Shinnecock. The course had been playing as expected for the first three days, hard and fast. It was at the edge of playability but still manageable through 54 holes. Then the prevailing southwest wind, which had a bit of humidity to it, gave way to a more northerly, drier wind overnight Saturday into Sunday.

Calamity ensued, exemplified by the death of the green at the par-3 seventh hole. Players couldn’t make their tee shots come to rest on the green’s mortified surface. It became so bad so early in the round that Davis, who would become the head setup man for the USGA two years later, suspended play at the seventh so that the green could be watered. As he stood holding the flagstick at the back of the green, the New York crowd let him know what they thought about the situation, pelting him with cups and calling out unprintable oaths.

“It was a really difficult situation and one I will never forget,” says Davis. “You had good shots that not only were not being rewarded, they were penalized. When we have something like that happen, and it crosses the line, that is not only a tough test but an unfair test and that’s definitely not what we want.”

When Mark Calcavecchia finished his round that day, he was completely drained and totally frustrated. The field averaged 78.8 shots on Sunday and there were 29 scores in the 80s. Only hit about a third of the greens were hit in regulation.

“Well, at 9:40 the greens were lost,” said Calcavecchia, who shot a well-earned 75. “They were dead from the start. It’s the USGA’s fault. They’re trying to throw a little water on them to make it look like they’re doing something, but it’s not doing any good whatsoever. It’s not the first time they’ve done this, and it won’t be the last. And on that note, I need a beer.”

Since then the USGA hasn’t repeated the mistake, largely thanks to Mike Davis’ vigilance. Davis’ first setup was the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where he introduced a concept that he had been thinking about for some time. It had annoyed him that shots just off the fairway in heavy rough could be penalized greater than shots that were way off line but ended up with decent lies where spectators had tromped the grass down. At Winged Foot he employed a graduated rough that got higher the farther away from the edge of the fairway. And he pushed the spectator ropes farther away from play to make sure that the duck hook or snap slice ended up in the appropriate amount of deep spinach. It was a concept applauded by players and used ever since.

This is not to say that all Opens were unfairly set up before Davis’ watch. Floyd had never played at Shinnecock Hills before the Open in 1986. Shinnecock had been the site of the second Open in 1896, but its rather remote site and seasonal nature of the small membership had long taken it out of consideration as the Open grew bigger and grew increasingly more important as a revenue source for the USGA. But a deep desire to bring the Open back to its roots would give players their chance to see one of the world’s best courses for the very first time.

“In 1986, I’ll never forget, I drove out to Shinnecock on Sunday afternoon,” says Floyd. “I had never been there before. I played a practice round on Monday morning, had my two boys with me. When I got done I told my [late] wife Maria this golf course is so great that not even the USGA could screw it up. There was absolutely no trickery to it; they just narrowed it up, made it a little firmer. It was perfect.”

For Floyd, perfect didn’t just mean that the fairways were the right height, that the rough was tough but playable, that the greens were the correct firmness and the balls were rolling at the correct the speed. It meant that his head was clear.

“I always thought I had a chance to win coming in, then I would get there and be livid at the way the course was set up,” says Floyd. “My bad attitude cost me chances to win an Open. I should have been able to win one before 1986. But the Open was always getting into my head. That’s what it does to players, for better or worse.”

Glen Nager, the president of the USGA, thinks that the severity of the Open is what sets it apart from all the other majors and what gives it its mojo. “For the people watching at home on television, the people attending the Open­—the consumers of our game—we want to give them a great venue that tests the maximum of physical and mental endurance,” says Nager. “We feel that a player needs to handle the course physically, and needs to mentally cope with adversity and pressure. That’s what we want our courses to provide and I think fans of the game have come to expect that.”

Davis says that it is a fact that fans of the game want the Open to be a horror house ride for the players. And while he was reviled at Shinnecock in 2004, it was the 2011 Open at Congressional Country Club won by Rory McIlroy that evoked the greatest emotional response by fans.

“I can tell you in my time in setting up the U.S. Open the one that was criticized by far the most, and you could take all the other ones and put them all together and multiply by 100 and wouldn’t even equal this, is when we had the U.S. Open at Congressional and Rory ran away and it was 16-under [par],” says Davis. “People that follow golf, they didn’t like that. Once a year they like the idea of having a really tough test of golf. This was the first time we got hundreds and hundreds of letters criticizing how easy it was. It was absolutely nothing against Congressional, it happened to be very soft, still conditions for four days.”

The “Sturm und Drang” of the Open, the drama created by golf’s most severe test, usually makes for a good show. No, it’s not the back nine at Augusta National on Sunday during the Masters, but it’s not supposed to be. The USGA wants its ultimate championship to stand apart. It needs to be exciting in its own way.

“When you say exciting, and I think that what people ultimately like, is when there can be a big variety of scoring on a given hole. You can see the lead change greatly,” says Davis. “I am convinced that what makes the Masters so exciting on that back nine is that you can see huge changes on the leaderboard in a very short period of time, so if a U.S. Open is nothing more than pars and bogeys, I can see the point where that becomes a bit monotonous.”

The United States Open, apart from determining the national champion, is also the economic engine that drives everything that the USGA does to administer and promote the game. The television revenues, domestic and foreign, along with corporate sponsorship, allow the USGA to do equipment testing, agronomy research, fund state and regional golf associations, fund junior golf programs, run the handicap system and the amateur side of the game.

“If you look at the USGA, conservatively we probably put $80 to $90 million a year back into the game, and we can do that because of what the U.S. Open generates,” says Davis.

The economic facts aren’t lost on Nager. “The U.S. Open is like a show, some say the biggest show in golf,” says Nager. “It is an entertainment product, no question. But we are holding our national championship and trying to find the best golfer. We don’t really ask the television people about the venues we go to other than to talk with them about their ability to broadcast from a place. TV wants to broadcast a tournament that provides a strong test of golf and the sort of drama that goes with it. We think we provide them, and all the fans of golf, with that.”

Bringing the Open back to Merion—a small, classic course of less than 7,000 yards—in the modern era of the game was difficult to do, but Davis was determined to do it, just as he is determined to take the Open to new sites in the future, including two public courses, 2015 at Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington, and 2017 at Erin Hills in rural Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee (see sidebar, pg. 81). And those two courses were given the nod after the resounding success of the Open at New York State’s Bethpage Black course on Long Island in 2002.

You can bet that Merion will be set up on the edge, that it will reach the outer limits that the USGA so much wants to determine its national champion. “We saw at the U.S. Amateur at Merion [in 2005] that during the stroke play qualifying it could stand up to these modern players,” says Davis. “Merion, being so small, is a difficult place to conduct the Open outside ropes. But inside the ropes it more than held its own. . . . Whether you like it or not, people have come to think of the Open as a really tough test of golf, and we are sure that Merion will prove to be that.”

It might be best to go back to the great amateur Bobby Jones, who won three U.S. Opens (the last at Merion in 1930), to find the definition of the game’s most arduous tournament.

“Nobody ever wins a U.S. Open,” said Jones. “Everybody else just loses it.”

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.