Babineau: USGA had better get things right at U.S. Open

2017 US Open-preview-Erin Hills USGA/Darren Carroll

Babineau: USGA had better get things right at U.S. Open

Golf

Babineau: USGA had better get things right at U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. – Ahead of the 117th U.S. Open, mild-mannered Adam Scott fired the flare that others were reluctant to shoot. On the heels of poor green conditions at Chambers Bay two years ago and following a huge rules controversy that overshadowed the national championship last June, Scott aired what many of his peers were thinking: This time at the U.S. Open, the U.S. Golf Association had better get things right.

“The ball is in their court. They control it all,” Scott said. “Hopefully they get it right this time, just from a playability standpoint.”

The USGA seems to have paused, taken a deep breath and listened. Now we’ll see if the proper actions follow. Let’s hope so. It’s important. Already at Erin Hills – the organization’s second first-time Open venue in three years – there seems to be a conscious effort to err on the side of caution.

Fairways are uncharacteristically wide for a U.S. Open, lending consideration to potentially strong cross winds. High fescue where golf balls might go to die has been hacked down. Greens will not be sped up to to their limits. Steady rains will ensure the course doesn’t have too much firmness or fire in it.

Why, if the wind lies down, somebody might even shoot 8 or 10 under par this week (gasp!) and the sun still might rise Monday morning at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.

When you push a course to the very edge, as the USGA often does, it’s a dangerous gamble. Sometimes the organization pulls it off, and sometimes it teeters over the edge and combusts. Pass the dice.

Let’s cue the lowlight reel: Payne Stewart watching on helplessly as his ball would not stop rolling down Olympic’s slick 18th green in Round 3 (1998); players unable to reach the fairway at the par-4 10th hole at Bethpage; short putts rolling into a greenside bunker at Shinnecock’s par-3 seventh green (2004); Dustin Johnson standing over a 4-footer feeling he had very little chance of making it (a 4-footer!!) on the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay (2015).

“If we’re being honest, yeah, we’re human,” said USGA executive director/CEO Mike Davis. “We know we’ve had some issues the last two years. As I like to point out, there’s a lot of things we’re very proud about with Chambers Bay, proud about at Oakmont … But, yes, there are some things that of course we had some issues.

“So moving forward, we want a nice, smooth U.S. Open.”

Wouldn’t that be grand? Four days of golf, with the players as the stars and ultimately deciding their own outcome?

In fairness, despite some inconsistencies with the putting surfaces, Chambers Bay not only showcased the U.S. Open in a totally new market, the Pacific Northwest, but also delivered a tremendous leaderboard and thrilling finish: Johnson had a 12-footer for eagle to win and a 4-footer for birdie to tie Jordan Spieth to force a playoff, and made neither.

OAKMONT, PA - JUNE 19: Dustin Johnson of the United States kisses the winner's trophy after his victory at the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club on June 19, 2016 in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Dustin Johnson weathered a USGA rules flap to win the 2016 U.S. Open. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

But at Oakmont last June, one of the U.S. Open’s tried and true gems (a nine-time U.S. Open host), a Sunday shootout gave way to a rules controversy as Dustin Johnson played his final six holes not knowing whether or not he’d be penalized for his ball moving on the fifth green. Fans were angry, and with reason. The USGA’s John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of Championships and Governance, said the USGA failed in two areas that day: Expediting the rule-making process and communicating in a timely manner – in both aspects, said Bodenhamer, the USGA fell “a little bit short.”

To that end, the USGA Wednesday announced the formation of a five-member rules committee that will be more mobile and will have technology at their fingertips to expedite rules decisions that need to be made swiftly so that the competition is not affected. Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status, will be stationed in one place, and serve as chief referee, “empowered to make instantaneous decisions.”

In hindsight, a top official, Rules chairman Mark Newell, was walking with the Johnson group a year ago, reviewed the ball-moving-on-the-green situation and deemed a rule had not been broken; he later was overruled by the committee. Johnson was assessed a one-stroke penalty walking off 18 green.

In going to a first-time venue, there is excitement as well as the unknown. At Oakmont, the USGA knows what works and what doesn’t. Here at Erin Hills, it’s a much tougher call. Two-time U.S. Open winner Ernie Els sat in a rocking chair behind Erin Hills’ stone clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, watching as players struggled just to reach the fairway into a stern breeze on the par-5 opening hole.

“They should be out here, watching this,” said Els, who is making his 25th U.S. Open start. “As you play more and more of them, you know the USGA guys want to get it right. They want to make it as tough as possible, they want to make it as fair as possible. But there were occasions throughout the years where they got it wrong, and they’ve freely admitted to that.”

Els and the other players know the USGA has a difficult job in setting up golf’s “ultimate test,” and most seem to approve the early setup at 7,741-yard Erin Hills. There is the 135-yard ninth hole, where decent shots could pitch short of a ridge, roll off the green and lead to doubles and triples, which may cause a few players to scream loudly. We’ll see. But most players embrace the challenge ahead.

“The game is evolving, it’s changing,” Els said. “I played with a kid yesterday from Texas A&M (Cameron Champ) who hits it 340 yards. Man, he’s long. This is where the game is going, and golf courses like this … this is where the game is going.”

Holding onto tradition while forging into the future isn’t the easiest balancing act. All acknowledge that. But difficult or not, it’s on the USGA to stay out of its own way this time, and to get it right.

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