Veteran PGA Tour caddie John Wood is among those beginning to wonder if the U.S. Golf Association will ever get it right.
It had a universally praised course with windy conditions that grew challenging but never disastrous, which seems just about perfect for a U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Yet questionable pin placements and a drastic difference in playability from morning to afternoon were the talk of the national championship, which is building a new, unfavorable reputation as the most controversial test in golf.
“Saturday it looked like they took it a little too far, which is unfortunate because Shinnecock is just an incredible place in every way,” said Wood, who was on the bag for Matt Kuchar. “Sunday they brought it back too far the other way maybe. It was not what you’d expect. You were hoping for a flawless U.S. Open from them this year. … I just wonder why every year with the USGA, something happens and they’ve got to explain themselves.”
The R&A takes over hosting duties at Carnoustie for this month’s British Open, which annually provides a stern but fair test for its participants. Unlike the U.S. Open of late, everyone pretty much knows what to expect when they tee it up for the Claret Jug.
Wood helped Kuchar to a runner-up finish last year at Royal Birkdale, and he was on Hunter Mahan’s bag for a T-6 finish the last time Carnoustie hosted the British Open in 2007. Mahan shot 65 Sunday in one of the best ballstriking rounds Wood has ever witnessed. The caddie hopes to channel some of the good vibes from 2007 and 2017 entering Carnoustie this time around.
The venue is the most difficult British Open course in the rotation and challenges players immediately off the tee.
“Am I going to lay this ball short of those bunkers, take them completely out of play and maybe have a 4-iron into this green, knowing I’m not going to get myself into trouble off the tee?” Wood said. “Or am I going to challenge this bunker, try to get it past it and get myself a 9-iron or an 8-iron into this green? I remember a lot of holes having to make that decision, and you make a lot of them before you even get out there.”
That’s a common theme at links courses but even more challenging at Carnoustie, due to the size and placement of said bunkering.
“At St. Andrews, maybe you’re trying to stay short of a bunker and if you stay short you’ve got 170 (yards) in,” Wood said. “If you get past it, you’ve got 140 in. I remember at Carnoustie, some of those choices were like, I’m either going to have 210 or 120.”
Wind is the biggest wildcard at these things, because a 15-mph wind in Scotland is legit. In the U.S. there are trees and hills and all sorts of topographical features that can put a dent in the gusts. At Carnoustie, a player could play a 4-iron into a heavy wind one day and play the exact same shot with a sand wedge the next if the wind changes directions.
Taking the wind out of play to a degree is a valuable but rare skill these days, and shapers have an advantage because they can strike a 5-iron head high from 175 yards out and run it up to the green.
Asked why this links strategy is utilized far less these days, Wood jumps to answer before the question it is finished.
“It’s equipment,” Wood said. “The ball is made to go straight, go high and spin a lot. Drivers, everybody is kind of a high-launch, low-spin. It’s just equipment. Guys don’t grow up playing golf like that anymore. If you can play like that on a windy day, you’ve got a huge advantage. Sergio (Garcia) does it really well. He’s the one that pops into my head initially. If Tiger (Woods) is good off the tee, I think Tiger’s phenomenal at it. Best iron player who’s ever played and has a great imagination.”
Kuchar and Wood played the Scottish Open to get re-acclimated to links golf and had a short trip to Carnoustie – rather than a 13-hour flight – before the major. It’s been a year since Kuchar has seriously contended, with just three top-10 finishes this season, and he’s still looking for the first major of his career.
The duo hopes to channel last year’s run across the pond, where history and good golf annually make headlines rather than the governing body.
“If he gets off to a good start, it’s a great tournament for him,” Wood said. “Hopefully we play well in Scotland, set a little vibe and plod along all week, and hopefully we’re somewhere near where we were last year at the end.” Gwk
(Note: This story appeared in the July 2018 issue of Golfweek.)