I Miss The Old U.S. Open
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I Miss The Old U.S. Open

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I Miss The Old U.S. Open

Maybe it’s only nostalgia. Maybe it’s totally irrational. In fact, I know it’s irrational.

I miss the old U.S. Open.

I grew up watching U.S. Opens where players came to the course with a real fear of being embarrassed by an excruciatingly difficult (and sometimes blatantly unfair) setup.

While the Masters has always been about drama, the PGA Championship about fairness and the Open Championship about romance, the U.S. Open once represented brutality. It was punitive to an extreme, a survival test and a war of mental attrition rather than a well-balanced golf tournament with a priority on identifying the “best” player.

In my opinion, the zenith of this era came in 2005 at Pinehurst, host of next week’s U.S. Open. Michael Campbell, a relative unknown, hung on to win at even par but that Sunday is better remembered for its carnage.

Cinderella story Jason Gore (84) and defending champion Retief Goosen (81) combined to go 25-over in the final pairing. The final round scoring average was 78.7, the highest since 1972.

The margins were so thin. If you weren’t playing well, you didn’t make it off the course alive. World-class players were looking like fools around Pinehurst’s treacherous greens. Missed fairways were incredibly penalizing.

Birdies were a huge deal, pars were a great score and bogeys weren’t all that demoralizing.

That form of sadistic pleasure was something I looked forward to each year. Would I want to watch it every week on the PGA Tour? Absolutely not. But seeing everyone struggle mightily once per year? Sign me up.

Shinnecock. Olympic. Winged Foot. Oakmont. Merion.

The courses were winning and the players had to figure out how to avoid catastrophe. Large numbers and terrible collapses loomed. The USGA pushed courses over the line and everyone complained.

There was entertainment and intrigue in that. Who was mentally tough enough to navigate all these landmines? Who would break down because of the pressure?

Some may have found it boring or monotonous but I just wanted to see the best players uncomfortable. I wanted to see them shoot 80 if they weren’t playing well. For someone to run the gauntlet and win a U.S. Open—it felt like it really meant something beyond a typical major championship.

That old U.S. Open mentality started to fade as the 2010s went along. The equipment got better and a new generation of players mastered that equipment. After 2018 at Shinnecock when the USGA got a little reckless with a couple hole locations, the setups started to become more reasonable. Some of the association’s leadership changed and the appetite for pushing players to the brink started to diminish.

The aim became “let’s make this hard but not hard enough for anyone to reasonably complain about it.”

In the five U.S. Opens since Shinnecock in 2018, the winning scores are averaging around 8-under. Player complaints are minimal. The courses are difficult but lack the ferocity that makes pro golfers sweat going to bed the night before.

This era of U.S. Open is probably better in terms of a fair and proper tournament. Truth be told, I would do the same thing if I was the USGA. I would set the course up so my organization wasn’t making (as many) controversial headlines.

I’m not sure they could even return to that old U.S. Open era if they wanted to. The greens would have to turn into my driveway. Thick rough and long par-4s don’t accomplish the same job anymore. Technology has drastically changed how the game is played at the highest level.

In the 1999 U.S. Open when Payne Stewart beat Phil Mickelson, the 489-yard par-4 16th hole was nearly impossible. Players were hitting 2-irons and 3-woods for their second shot. The green was virtually unhittable in regulation, leading to this comical graphic.

You should go back and watch the whole final round. The 16th was the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history at the time. The hole is now 530 yards and players will probably be hitting mid to short irons unless it’s back into the wind.

And maybe that is why the U.S. Open feels like it’s in a new era. Two guys shot 62 last year. Scoring records were set. The final hole at Los Angeles Country Club was a wide-open par-4 that allowed champion Wyndham Clark to blow it off the planet and still hit the fairway.

It is still a great major championship played on historic venues. Pinehurst No. 2 is one of my favorite courses. It’s a more interesting layout after the 2010 restoration brought back sandy areas instead of wall-to-wall rough. It will be a better tournament at identifying the best golfer. We’re in store for a phenomenal tournament.

But damn rationality. I have to say it: I really miss when the U.S. Open made these guys bleed.

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Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean is a longtime golf journalist and underachieving 8 handicap who enjoys the game in all forms. If he didn't have an official career writing about golf, Sean would spend most of his free time writing about it anyway. When he isn't playing golf, you can find Sean watching his beloved Florida Panthers hockey team, traveling to a national park or listening to music on his record player. He lives in Nashville with his wife and dog (of course the dog's name is Hogan).

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm

Sean Fairholm





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      Mike

      5 days ago

      Oh yeah, lots of fun to watch the world’s best players screw up. Gotta protect par! Why is golf the ONLY sport where the conditions are made more difficult for major events? Do they push the fences back in the world series? Tighten the goal posts in the super bowl? Raise the rims in the NBA finals? Have never understood that USGA mentality. I cancelled my USGA membership years ago & it’s my least favorite major to watch.

      Reply

      Joo

      3 days ago

      Because in all those other sports there is someone playing defense against you. The course is the defense.

      There isn’t someone trying to blow a golfball past you at 100mph
      There isn’t someone trying to tackle/block you while walking to the next hole
      There isn’t a defender in your face while your swinging.

      It’s a major which means the test is harder, just like the finals in any other sport. The team you play against is better than the previous team you played.

      Reply

      Ron

      6 days ago

      tl;dr version – The problem with the US Open is that the USGA often does not know how to do what they claim they’re trying to do.

      Contrary to Sean’s desire to see a brutally (even if unfairly) difficult setup, if you ask the USGA what they are trying to accomplish, you will hear the phrase “test of golf” ad nauseum. If they go into detail the words “complete and balanced” usually show up. Then they often go out and fail to do that. The setups in the 80s that Sean misses were prime examples. It seems like they thought making it extremely difficult was enough to do the job. Well, it should be difficult, but in a very specific way. It should be designed to test as much of the complete skill set needed to navigate this absurd game as possible, in as balanced a way as possible.

      Just making it difficult is not enough. Any a$$hole (including me) can make a course play difficult. I can make a course play so hard that no one on the planet will break a hundred. That doesn’t mean I’ve done the job of administering a “complete and balanced test of golf”.

      Granted, setting up a course to do this is a hard task, but these folks are getting paid a lot of money. They should be better at it.

      Some things that tell me that the course setup guys screwed up:

      Some unknown comes out of nowhere to win the US Open, never to be heard from again.

      They have to water one of the greens at Shinnecock between groups because the set it up to be on the hairy edge at 8am, and by 10:30 it’s unplayable. When some of the members vote to not let the USGA come back because they made the course look bad, it should tell them they screwed up.

      One of the announcers at Chambers Bay, after all the complaints about the greens, says he went and checked them out and says “they’re not that bad”. The phrase “not that bad” should never come out of the mouth of someone describing the greens at a US Open, especially someone being paid to say nice things about the tournament.

      When Payne Stewart’s putt on 18 during the first round at the Olympic Club gets within a foot of the hole, then proceeds to trickle 40+ feet away. Even worse, it took close to a full minute to come to a stop. It looked like a slow motion video of a Pachinko ball as it deflected off of each blade of grass. Each time the ball changed direction (and there were a lot) made the USGA look more and more like dicks.

      Apologies in advance to any Rocco Mediate fans, but when he is quoted as saying it makes him sick to his stomach to hear people complain about how difficult the course setup is, it tells me they did it badly. In my opinion, Rocco is in the “journeyman” category of golfers. I’ll be surprised if he is ever considered for the HOF. If a course is just set up to be mindlessly difficult, it increases his chances. Basically, if you set up the course so that every shot needs to be approached defensively, you will have negated a bunch of the skills you claim to be trying to test. You won’t have identified the best golfer. Just the most conservative one.

      Having said all that, the USGA sometimes does a good job of setup. The Country Club in Brookline showed itself well a couple of years ago, primarily because they let the character of the course show itself, and refrained from gimmicking it up too much.

      Reply

      Joe Engtchr

      6 days ago

      Player complaints are minimal. The courses are difficult but lack the ferocity that makes pro golfers sweat going to bed the night before.

      👀 IS THE U.S. OPEN TO EASY?

      English class must have been too hard!

      Reply

      Matt

      6 days ago

      It should be fair if you are hitting it in the fairway, but if you are off the fairway, it should be punished. I hated a few years ago some pros were complaining about the thickness of the rough and they went in and cleaned it up some. I was thinking, hit it in the fairway.

      Reply

      PHDrunkards

      6 days ago

      You’re going to hate Pinehurst 2 for sure, as there is NO ROUGH lmao
      They’ve “restored” it to the old Mickey-Mouse style course with the dirt areas lining the sides of the fairways but with upside down saucer, turtle back greens that are meant to be extra slick – but they won’t make them too slick, instead put pins on corners and edges
      The course is laughable

      Reply

      Will

      6 days ago

      I don’t get the whole “the pros are too good, I want them to do worse” mentality. And I absolutely despise the “so let’s roll back equipment to make everyone worse” garbage. If you just want some nice relatably bad golf, there’s plenty on YouTube.

      Reply

      Joseph Greenberg

      6 days ago

      Can’t find the answer to friend’s question: who has won US Open after winning on Tour week prior?

      Reply

      Drrain

      6 days ago

      Brutal but fair should be the goal. I like it when the winner is around even par. It’s fine when certain course conditions may soften it up a bit, it is an outdoor game, and some courses will play harder than others. Shooting in the 60’s should be a difficult task, the best players in the world need to be pushed to their limits of skill, patience and strategy.

      Reply

      Rich

      6 days ago

      Absolutely spot-on here. There is definitely a fine line to tread between “brutal” and “unfair”, but I think the US Open was uniquely situated to actually push these guys outside of their comfort zones. Only a major can really pull it off since guys would skip any random tournaments that could really embarrass them, but they’re forced to deal with it if it’s one of the big four. And also agree with the sentiment that it wouldn’t be something I’d like to see every week, but once a year would be a perfect palate cleanser in this bomb and gouge era.

      Reply

      Marc Shapiro

      6 days ago

      Totally agree with your USGA Open article. A war of attrition…yessss! That’s the way I like it , uh huh uh huh (disco era lyric)

      Reply

      Mike Peck

      6 days ago

      Check out the woman’s open when Nellie Korda scores a 10 on a par three.

      Reply

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