2004 Open at Shinnecock ‘a learning experience’

USGA executive director Mike Davis

BETHESDA, Md. – For serious golf-course geeks, one of the highlights on the calendar is the annual U.S. Golf Association press conference on the Wednesday of the U.S. Open. Here’s where we get to dissect the championship setup, scrutinize what the USGA is doing and try to figure out where, by week’s end, they’ll have screwed up royally.

Already, there’s murmuring this week about partially stressed-out greens and signs of browning. No surprise, since this is normally torrid Washington, D.C., and just last week the heat index was 106. Temperatures and heat stress have since abated considerably, but even the USGA’s chairman of the championship committee, Tom O’Toole, admitted grounds for concern. In an earlier day, the USGA’s leadership might have tried hiding. But not anymore. The new regime, led by new USGA executive director Mike Davis, is open and willing to discuss complex issues.

The whole town of the gathering, in fact, perked up when USGA president Jim Hyler created some ripples of excitement with the news that Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., will get the 2018 U.S. Open.

It was back in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills that the USGA set-up staff all but lost the golf course to dry, windy conditions and virtually unputtable greens. By everyone’s concession at the press conference, that ill-fated Open in 2004 was “a learning experience.” Ever since, the USGA has shown respect for the particular weather conditions and not tried to over-stress the course. They’ve also adopted, under Davis’ direction, a commitment to more flexible setups involving varied tee locations, risk/reward opportunities and presenting players with shot-making options.

That’s why they’ve actually converted the old par-4 sixth hole into a mid-length par 5 (555 yards). With a lake protecting the green, the hole now plays more interestingly as a par 5 than a par 4, one that led to a fairly sophisticated setup philosophy emphasizing respect for integrity of the golf course.

As for technicalities such as green speed, the previously intended target speed of 14-14.5 on the Stimpmeter is, by Davis’ concession, not likely to be achieved, given the need not to stress out these greens.

Will spectators at home notice the difference? Perhaps. It means the golf course will now be one step back from the edge of doom. Chalk that up to the lessons of Shinnecock. It’ll take the year 2018 before the USGA lives down that nightmare entirely. For now, they’ll just have to make amends year-by-year.

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