The identity of the U.S. Open is that it’s a beautiful mess. If you’re not playing in it or trying to host it, it’s fun to revel in all the wailing, tension, and occasional incompetence. The last five years, however, have featured a mix of bad luck, poor timing, and outright mismanagement that has left many loud voices among the players completely fed up with the national championship, even to the point of a serious discussion of a boycott.
The consistency of that beautiful mess has left the USGA, and many objective observers, feeling like they must have a smooth run in 2019. John Bodenhamer, the new man in charge of setting up the course, did not dodge the weight of this opportunity in front of them, calling it “critical” that the championship go off without the controversies that engulfed at least three of the last four U.S. Opens. Fortunately, this feels like a week that is going to go well for everyone involved — the USGA, the best players in the world, and those watching.
The force of Pebble Beach
When you walk around Pebble Beach, you have to periodically remind yourself you’re not in a simulation. That you’re not in one of those Soaring Around the World rides at Disney but that this is where you presently stand and where your feet are connected to the earth. This is not original and not as eloquent as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in creation” descriptor, but it should be said even if it’s being said for the one billionth time. The pictures and prose will never do justice to the walk.
The scenery is obviously what makes that so special, but the variety of that scenery takes it to the next level. There is relatively little monotony in the beauty, so you don’t get used to it or take it for granted. You’re not staring out at the same amazing vista that might numb you, but rather a carousel of variety that keeps you stimulated and present. There are holes that are relatively flat riding the coast, some that climb, some that fall, and some that cant into the ocean. There are beaches, coves, cypress trees, rocks, wildlife and California peaks diving into the coast off in the distance.
There are architecture experts that will you it’s not perfect or it could be better with even greater variety from a design standpoint. That doesn’t mean it’s not great, sui generis, and arguably the best setting for the national championship in the country. It feels special and different to have this championship here and that will show both on TV and on the ground. It also, by itself, commands some deference when it comes to criticism of the championship as a whole.
An unf—kwithable U.S. Open setup
There was an uncharacteristic quietude this week. The players seem impressed with the conditioning of the course and not especially worried about a specific hole or area of where the USGA could overreach (in their eyes, at least). The tone has been universally complimentary, but then again, Phil Mickelson has been in hiding and never made a visit to the media center.
We heard last year at Shinnecock that the modern-day tools and technology for testing course conditions and firmness made a repeat of the 2004 debacle there impossible. Then we still had players revolt on Saturday and say the USGA “lost” the course. This year, it’s hard to look out there and see the potential for revolt. The mowing lines are different than the AT&T Pro-Am they play each February here on the PGA Tour, but the pros have seemed to accept the narrower fairways without much complaint. The rough is thick but we’re not getting hyperventilating social media videos demonstrating how it’s unacceptable or out of control as we have in past years.
A sudden shift in the weather can create an unexpected mess. But even there, they seem prepared. They know the weather can change on the coast and they’ve communicated to the players that they may syringe the greens during play in order to avoid similarly “losing” the course.
Last year felt like an opportunity to get past all the recent troubles at maybe the best major championship course in America. Then the Saturday circus of Phil Mickelson and hollering players happened and we had another USGA fiasco, perhaps overblown in real time.
“I think we should give them the chance to redeem themselves,” Rory McIlroy said two weeks ago. “If they can’t redeem themselves at Pebble Beach, then there could be a problem.” It truly feels like this setup and this scene and this year are unf—kwithable and it’s a year they will be “redeemed.” But we’ve thought that before and the golf gods, trigger-happy tour pros, and USGA mistakes have conspired to create drama. If it happens this week, then it’s a stroke of cosmically poor luck or the USGA has truly done and messed it up for all time.
Where it could break bad
So where could we possible see some trouble this week? How could we get a controversy? It’s likely we don’t, but the USGA is working with absolutely no margin so all it takes is one or two disgruntled pros or one rules controversy for final judgments, however fair, about the success or failure of this U.S. Open.
A rules one-off
No matter how pure the course is or how proper the setup is, there is always the potential for some sort of rules mishap that creates backlash from the pros, viewing public, and assembled golf media. Justin Thomas cautioned about players trying to fix the poa annua green surfaces, which have been known to get bumpy late in the day. The new rules of golf allow players to fix spike marks on the greens, something they previously could not do before 2019. But you cannot fix or adjust some poa annua bump, which is a distinction Thomas said he himself was unaware of until Riviera on the West Coast Swing earlier this year.
That’s something that I hope is monitored this week, because you can’t fix poa annua, you can fix spike marks, but you can’t tap down poa annua. I asked that, I think it was in LA, I was curious, because I didn’t know that until I asked. So I don’t even know how many other guys don’t know that if they haven’t asked.
But I just asked. I’m like: Look, I know you can tamp down spike marks. What about poa annua? That’s the green. That’s not a -- I don’t know why, but you cannot do that. It’s still poa annua, it’s still going to wiggle, and even if you tap it down, it’s still going to move.
So I guess in terms of the rule change it doesn’t change anything about the poa annua, but I’m sure there’s still a lot of people that don’t know that rule from just not asking. Like I said, I would have never known if I hadn’t asked.
This is where you could have a potential rules mishap that suddenly defines the 2019 iteration.
Geoff Shackelford, a California native and golf course architecture expert and historian, said some of these small greens, particularly at Nos. 8 and 11, are where problems could arise if something were to go wrong with this U.S. Open. Shackelford said it’s less a USGA problem and more of the fact that they’re just not starting with much to work with at each green, given how small they now are and what surrounds them. There are limited places to put pins and you’ll need complete control of the conditioning if you do try to push the edge to find a new pin placement.
Rules drama is not necessarily something the USGA can control. They can control the firmness of the greens. The players have, by and large, seemed to accept the rough heights and the narrower fairways this week. They understand it will be a penalty if they miss the fairway and that it’s going to get unpredictably nasty if you go into the high stuff. What will drive them crazy, however, is if these greens, which are already among the smallest in the world, get too firm and good shots start ricochet off into the ether or fail to hold the greens. We’re getting now rain, most likely, and potential coastal blustery conditions that could hasten the firmness of the course.
There’s also the possibility that the greens just get too firm. I’ve heard from different people on the ground who know the agronomy that the USGA has held it back all week. They’re not pushing the course to the limit and aren’t close to doing so. But once they do stop putting water into it, and maybe the weather changes with some increased winds, it could dry out faster than expected. Is it likely? No. But that seemed to be the case at Shinnecock last year and a couple bad pins combined with some faster-than-expected drying out resulted in the entire week being judged a failure by some angry pros and press.
The USGA communicated to the players that it is possible they might “syringe” the greens during play if they think things are getting too firm or out of control. The likelihood of this happening is small, but if a single hose comes out during play to regulate the conditions, that too will prompt an outcry. Just the sight of it would create a manic reaction that they’d lost it again and needed to water during play.
The benevolent USGA
And then there’s always the possibility the USGA disappoints by making it too easy. These are the margins they’re working with after the last five years and in the heightened scrutiny of this era with players using social media to pop off in anger. There’s a thought that they went soft on Sunday last year following all the controversy of Saturday. If they’re still gunshy about something, however remote, happening, they may be cautious all week, no matter the forecast. This also bothers people because the U.S. Open is supposed to be torturous, not some #LiveUnderPar party.
So there are still a handful of ways this could go wrong. Those ways just all seem so remote. What seems more likely is a U.S. Open at maybe the most beautiful golf course on earth with all the best players in the world in form and one that you should indulge. This feels less like a tightrope walk and more like an easy and perfect opportunity for the USGA to do something different: not have the U.S. Open become a beautiful mess.