Shinnecock under scrutiny of USGA

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Out on Long Island, the scars have healed and bruised egos recovered. But back here at the U.S. Golf Association Golf House, a sustained discussion about course setup continues in the aftermath of a brutal Sunday at the U.S. Open.

There’s nothing unusual about reviewing championships in terms of operations and setup. But of all 13 national events run by the USGA, the most important and most closely scrutinized is the U.S. Open. USGA executive director David Fay knows that the country’s ruling body of golf messed up at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club during the fourth round of this year’s U.S. Open. The big question is how to avoid that kind of controversy in the future.

In mid-August, Fay sat in his corner office and reflected on the season’s events.

“When one looks back at Sunday at Shinnecock,” he says, “it was a nice day to play golf, with clear skies and relatively modest wind, and you have to ask yourself, which we have, why the average score that day was pushing 79.”

“It was not what we intended. We went over the edge.”

In retrospect, there’s no doubt that the golf course was set up so lean and mean that there was no margin for error once a dry, unseasonable breeze arose. How else to explain average scores jumping five shots for the final round compared with the first three?

The result was savage criticism of the USGA – by players, the media and industry insiders. And this despite widespread regard for the golf course early in the week, with occasional concern that the course might be playing too easy for the world’s finest golfers.

Some of the ensuing controversy probably is attributable to the fact that the popular choice, Phil Mickelson, faltered in the stretch and lost to Retief Goosen, a relatively bland international player. And some of the criticism emerges from basic ignorance of agronomic matters, the kind that drives so much decision-making at private clubs these days.

Questions also were raised about whether the USGA was going overboard in its protection of par. After all, subsequent majors with lower scoring produced highly competitive and entertaining golf.

Meg Mallon won the U.S. Women’s Open at 10 under par. Todd Hamilton won the British Open and Vijay Singh triumphed at the PGA Championship with scores of 8 under. Why should the USGA go to extreme lengths to produce a winner at or near par? Or in Goosen’s case, 4 under par?

As Fay points out, tough course setups have been par for the U.S. Open since 1951 at Oakland Hills. The setup template of narrow fairways, deep rough and firm, fast greens was enshrined by Richard Tufts, president of the USGA in 1956 and 1957 and the longtime owner of Pinehurst Resort.

Fay argues that, historically, scores in the range of 280 win the men’s professional majors. He points to a legal pad with a hand-scribbled chart showing average scores in 1953 and in 10-year intervals since. To make his case, he’s tossed out two outlying scores, the highest (1963 U.S. Open, 293) and lowest (1993 British Open, 267).

This year’s average was 277.75, though to get there tournament officials had to pursue very different paths. Augusta National has lengthened and narrowed its holes dramatically over the years to keep their course a fresh test for pro golfers. In an era when players regularly fly their drives 285 yards and when they hit middle- and short-irons to par 5s, it’s increasingly difficult to defend par without squeezing a golf course to near death, which is what happened at Shinnecock Hills.

Fay claims that the USGA “is not as fixated on par as some believe.”

He also disavows the view of some critics that, given recent advances in technology and playing equipment, the USGA is trying to affirm the value of a certain target score and is willing to go to extremist course setups to do so.

What he does admit is that setting up golf courses for stroke play events is tougher than ever.

“The ball goes farther and straighter,” says Fay. “They’re hitting shorter clubs into greens. The players are more confident than ever and have a better work ethic. And they have the ability to prepare for tournament courses and gather the information they need on unfamiliar layouts.”

One area certain to change in USGA course setups has to do with personnel.

Tom Meeks, senior director of rules and competitions and the man responsible for major course setups, will retire at the end of 2005 – a long-planned move unrelated to this year’s U.S. Open. He’ll be replaced by Mike Davis, the USGA’s current director of competitions.

In the aftermath of Shinnecock, Fay is considering a broader approach to hole setups. Instead of selecting locations based upon slope and putting, it should be possible to think about overall playability of the approach shot and access a certain segment of the green. Pretty basic stuff, really.

Such a wider perspective might reduce the likelihood of the embarrassment the USGA faced Sunday at the par-3 seventh hole (Redan) of the U.S. Open, where tee shots and putts wouldn’t stop anywhere near the hole – a location that one person associated with Shinnecock said “we would never have used under such conditions.”

Given all of the trouble retrofitting classic courses for competitions, the easiest thing might be to select more contemporary layouts. No course opened since 1962 (Hazeltine) has played host to a U.S. Open. The first opportunity to do so might be 2012, when Whistling Straits is available.

Fay says that the “PGA has done a better job of weaving in new courses than we have.” He points to Shoal Creek (1984, 1990), Valhalla (1996, 2000) and now Whistling Straits (2004) as evidence. But he also knows that without proper course setup, site selection is no panacea.


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