Shackelford: Mistakes in Shinnecock course setup bring back bad memories

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 15: A groundskeeper waters the seventh green during the second round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 15, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images) Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Shackelford: Mistakes in Shinnecock course setup bring back bad memories

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Shackelford: Mistakes in Shinnecock course setup bring back bad memories

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

Shinnecock Hills 2018 will be remembered for Wednesday night’s round-saving watering, not hydrating enough Saturday and an emergency drenching Sunday to keep the place from spilling into absurdity.

For two of its final three days, the U.S. Open faced bright, dry and potentially fast conditions. The U.S. Golf Association fed Shinnecock Hills enough water. History, however, will remember Saturday’s gaffe when players putted off browned-out greens as balls would not stop rolling and, most disappointing of all, the morning wave faced wildly better course conditions compared to the beleaguered afternoon leaders.

The lessons of 2004 were not learned.

The mistake that could never happen again, happened again.

While the errors were nuanced and admirable regret was shown by USGA CEO and course-setup overseer Mike Davis, this one is on him. Davis has long tried to avoid the mistakes of his setup predecessor, Tom Meeks, but fell victim to the same course ultimately wrapping up Meeks’ USGA career.

Fox’s Paul Azinger was correct in disdainfully suggesting how several hole locations were put in extreme spots, even driving home the point again to open Sunday’s telecast. The day prior, Fox rules analyst and former USGA executive director David Fay went on air to explain how setup decisions for the following day were made after rounds to ensure late afternoon conditions were best understood.

With the USGA’s network partner effectively declaring Saturday’s setup a failure and Joe Buck asking some of the toughest questions of Davis just as NBC’s team did in 2004, the USGA was even under siege from friendly fire.

As the 2018 final round played out incident-free over a golf course meticulously presented by Shinnecock’s Jon Jennings and his fantastic crew, Brooks Koepka will be remembered as a fine champion who won in very different conditions than his 2017 win at Erin Hills.

But it was hard to sense much of a buzz Sunday at Shinnecock.

Certainly not helping were smaller crowds during a week already unable to be sold out despite ticket limits. Players unsure what speeds they would face and what kind of challenge the USGA might muster appeared unsure how to attack or what to do with such an odd range of daily setup and wind conditions. And then there was the necessary hydration to make things playable.

The closest-to-the-fringe hole location for Sunday’s round was five paces from the edge of a green, with seven hole locations looking more like center-cut, practice-round options.

SOUTHAMPTON, NY - JUNE 16: The first hole flag blows in the breeze during the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on June 16, 2018 in Southampton, New York. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The wind was no surprise at Shinnecock Hills this week. The USGA’s inability to deal with it was. (Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The USGA absolutely did the right thing Sunday, but the damage from Saturday’s events and the manipulation necessary to finish the championship without a play stoppage leaves the entire golf world collectively asking: How can the USGA and its leader – Davis – recover from a week in which new technology and new methodology was supposed to prevent future debacles.

The answers are not easy.

Modern agronomy so easily can create green speeds over 11 on the Stimpmeter. On a classic course such as Shinnecock, where surfaces were designed when speeds were in the seven range, the only solution is to raise mowing heights and face bumpier greens. Poa annua cut just a little higher might get bumpier, and the USGA does not want to listen to four days of whining about broccoli-infused putting surfaces.

When the weather turns at this masterpiece where turf conditions change so drastically over a full June day, the only solution is a mid-round watering. The USGA loathes taking such action, but a light dousing in 2004 did the trick and would have done the same in 2018.

Finally, there is the U.S. Open’s identity as golf’s ultimate test, a burden to live up to in a game radically altered by technology. The USGA is trying to please a wide array of taste buds by sticking to its demanding-examination roots. Yet the organization has struggled for years to find a balance between design, setup and maintenance. With modern distances, incredible course grooming and the vagaries of weather, maintaining the ultimate challenge appears a burdensome task too reliant on daily hydrology.

Especially at Shinnecock Hills. Gwk

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