What is the U.S. Open?
It used to be the easiest major championship to define. Its identity was simple: Tight fairways, deep and nearly unplayable rough, and insanely fast greens. We knew before the week started which players could contend and which players, barring a miracle, could not. You had to be tough but patient, straight not crooked, you had to putt like god. If you weren’t blessed with everything like Jack, Arnie or Tiger, you better be Payne Stewart, Hale Irwin or Lee Janzen.
But that USGA philosophy changed in recent years as the U.S. Open wanted to broaden its challenge rather than just annually stiffening it. So the championship was brought to the wide fairways of Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017, courses where angles into the green were a popular topic of conversation. For decades at the U.S. Open, the only angle required was straight.
It was new, it was progressive, it was where golf seemed to be heading. Unfortunately the Opens at both Chambers Bay and Erin Hills fell flat. The greens at quirky Chambers Bay were mainly dirt by week’s end, and Erin Hills, although a fabulously fun place to play a round of golf, wasn’t up for a U.S. Open challenge when the promised wind forgot to blow and champion Brooks Koepka shot 16 under.
After two embarrassments in three years, the USGA luckily found itself with three layups in a row at classic U.S. Open courses in Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach, and now Winged Foot. But what does this mean for the U.S. Open identity, are we back where we started?
“U.S. Open DNA is about placing a premium on accuracy off the teeing area, we think that’s important,” this week’s course setup boss John Bodenhamer said on Wednesday. “We think that premium by (forcing) a player to drive his ball into the fairway and hit his approach shot from the fairway on to these magnificent putting green complexes and keeping the ball below the hole is key. So it’s really not about what the rough entails, it’s about getting the ball in the fairway. And I think we have tried to present this in a way where that narrowness is there, but we’re using rough heights three to five inches. As we’ve said all along, that’s been our plan. We’re right there. That the more off line you are, the more penalty you’re going to face.”
That certainly has a Back to the Future vibe to it, and as someone who has argued for years that the stern, traditional U.S. Open test is an important part of proving a player’s grand slam worthiness, I’m more than okay if that’s the direction this championship is heading again. After all, is it fair to Phil Mickelson and Sam Snead if the U.S. Open test that held them back from the final pantheon of golf greatness suddenly changes its course syllabus?
On the other side, there are many people who find that traditional U.S. Open setups lack the spirit and creativity that makes golf so rewarding. Canadian Adam Hadwin finds the age-old formula somewhat limiting, perhaps even boring.
“I think playing a British Open is more fun and enjoyable than playing a U.S. Open,” Hadwin told Postmedia from Winged Foot. “Not that it’s less penalizing because obviously if you hit it in fairway bunkers, you’re chipping out just like the long rough here, but over there, as long as you keep it out of those bunkers you’ll always have a shot to the green.”
The same can’t be said for the brutally long tree-lined parkland classics that have hosted so many major championships in America.
“Here, in this traditional setup, you basically bomb it as far down as you can and hopefully you hit the fairway. If you don’t, then hopefully you have a lie. If you don’t have a lie you just hit out to the fairway and then hit it to the green. There’s sort of no creativity with that I guess, it’s just a wedge on the green and try to make a putt. If you don’t, then you make a five.”
Winged Foot’s green complexes are far from traditional but Hadwin’s point is undeniable.
“Yes, the greens here are very sloped so you’re going to see some stuff around the greens, but again, there’s no British Open-like putting from 30 yards, or where you can use four or five different clubs from a green-side shot. Here, it’s just a lob wedge out of the rough, open it up and swing hard.”
There are plenty of passionate opinions and observers that we are sure to hear this week at the U.S. Open. It’s all good for the game and there’s room for everyone’s views when it comes to debating major championships and the future of golf, so open it up and swing hard.