Shinnecock Hills left major legacy on golf with 2004 U.S. Open

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 20: Retief Goosen of South Africa hits his second shot on the 16th hole during the 104th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 20, 2004 in Southampton, New York. Goosen went on to win the tournament. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images) Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Shinnecock Hills left major legacy on golf with 2004 U.S. Open

Golf

Shinnecock Hills left major legacy on golf with 2004 U.S. Open

Johnny Miller concluded NBC’s 2003 U.S. Open telecast by suggesting Olympia Fields was a bit too tame by U.S. Golf Association standards. He warned that players had better look out because the USGA would exact revenge at Shinnecock Hills.

Miller proved prophetic, though the 1973 U.S. Open champion probably couldn’t imagine the bureaucratic unraveling that would take place in 2004. The course setup disaster on arguably the most complete U.S. Open design forever changed the USGA’s image, its approach to course setup and the group’s relationship with players, media, venues and even television partners.

“I would just say that it was 14 years ago, it was a different time, it was different people, and we as an organization, we learned from it,” said current USGA executive director Mike Davis, who was a minor player on the 2004 setup team. “I think that the difference then versus now is there was a lot more, we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands.”

Some players simply gave up?

Would that have helped the USGA see what seemingly was obvious to everyone watching? That the greens were too dry and too fast?

“What really happened then was just a lack of water,” Davis conceded recently in the first public acknowledgment that 2004’s setup gone bad came
as a direct result of the USGA. Until Davis came clean at the recent U.S. Open media day, previous regimes floated (and believed) theories of maintenance crew mistakes, a middle of the night rogue and, in the strangest excuse of all, the suggestion some players simply gave up under the grueling weekend conditions.

“How do you give up?” Ernie Els asked a few days later, when told what the USGA’s Tom Meeks said after the 2004 U.S. Open. “I’ve never given up on any round of golf in my life. If I did give up, I would have shot 100. I mean that’s ridiculous.”

The setup for Shinnecock Hills in 2004 started off fine, though Meeks pinpointed four greens on edge in an early week Golf Channel interview. A star-studded leaderboard got to 6 under in the opening 36 holes, and after that the U.S. Open was never quite same.

According to several attendees at the time and confirmed again with several of the key players, Shinnecock’s steeply pitched Redan green at No. 7 was double cut and rolled Friday night under USGA supervision. The increase in speed was part of the setup plan all week to toughen up the course for weekend play. By several accounts, the club’s gifted superintendent, Mark Michaud, and his volunteer help did not have the USGA’s ear at that point of the week, an almost unthinkable situation in the Davis era in which set-up gauges, weather forecasts and agronomists are leaned on.

As Saturday’s round developed and the course dried out, few players could hold the seventh green. Worse, many chip shots were hit to the hole, only to roll back off the green. As the day wore on and leader Phil Mickelson made double bogey there – the six-time runner-up lost the tournament by two strokes – executive director David Fay chimed in from his NBC announcer position, saying the seventh green was “by mistake, rolled this morning.” Fay said this as cameras showed workers beginning to mow the very same green after Saturday’s round.

From there, the USGA struggled to regain control of the narrative. Executive committee member Walter Driver blamed the issues on a mistaken rolling. After the tournament, former executive director Frank Hannigan likened the USGA spin to “saying Sauchiehall Street was inadvertently torn up overnight.”

Not enough water and too much wind

As high winds blew into the wee hours Saturday night, Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner asked Meeks if the USGA planned to put some water on the course to keep it from getting any drier. Meeks said the outdated Shinnecock irrigation system was too weak to combat the wind, so the system was not used to maintain some balance between fast and out of control.

However, Sunday morning saw the fiasco start at the seventh and spread to other greens. The first twosome out, with Kevin Stadler and J.J. Henry, posted a pair of triple bogeys. The next pairing through posted a triple bogey and a double bogey. Miller grimly stated that the hole was “unplayable.”

The USGA halted play on the seventh and applied a light misting to keep balls from rolling off the surface. Just a light green syringing proved the green could be made playable. Other greens were also watered as play progressed.

Dropping by the NBC booth Sunday morning, then USGA president and now Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley defended the seventh hole setup, saying it was caused by a “perfect storm” of wind, sun, hole location and the alleged accidental rolling. When NBC’s Dan Hicks joked that they’d gone from talking about growing the game to growing grass, Ridley didn’t laugh.

The USGA’s relationship was never quite the same with players, its television partner or the club brass at Shinnecock Hills. While some fences were eventually mended, the career of superintendent Michaud was never the same. The USGA eventually dropped NBC for Fox, and several within the USGA eventually moved on as Davis was ushered into the lead job by the 2006 U.S. Open. Private admissions of error and a healthy site fee finally convinced Shinnecock Hills to sign up for 2018 and the 2026 U.S. Opens.

Davis and front-nine setup man Jeff Hall now have advanced tools such as moisture readers, Tru-Firm, weather gauges and extensive documentation to prevent a similar debacle. Yet the golf world still knows that what happened last year at Erin Hills looks eerily similar to the Olympia Fields circumstances.

After seeing players dominate the long and wide Erin Hills, the USGA ordered a fairway narrowing at Shinnecock Hills in the fall of 2017. And whether it maintains control of the course will determine if it can regain credibility still damaged by the events of 2004. Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the June 2018 issue of Golfweek).

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