By Matthew Van Fossen | @MVF510
Which of the four golf majors is the best major of them all you ask? For this week, I'll take a look at the U.S. Open, a tournament that has been around for 116 years.
The USGA changes the location of the U.S. Open every year but has returned to a few courses numerous times; Pebble Beach, Winged Foot and Olympic have each hosted 5 times. Oakmont Country Club in western Pennsylvania has hosted 8 times which is the most of any course. This year, Oakmont will have the pleasure of hosting once again.
Most of these courses are striking in 60” High Def, others not so much (I’m talking about you, 3-time host Southern Hills). The list of courses that have hosted multiple times is mostly made up of private courses with notable exceptions being Pebble Beach and Pinehurst (Pebble Beach costs $495 to play. You have to stay there to get a reservation, though and the cheapest room at the lodge is $790. If you walk on they still charge you $495 but the cart is $40 extra. So it’s private-esque.)
However, in the last 20 years the USGA has made a point of trying to use more public links for their championship. Of course, there are always stupid-rich men building ultra-private prestige courses to feed their own ego. Google The Institute Golf Course in the Southern Silicon Valley or the Alotian Golf Club in Arkansas. Oh, you didn’t find anything. That’s right, there are no websites for either of those courses. It’s like they’re ciphers whose sole bragging rights come from how few members they allow. 
Venues have typically been great for the U.S. Open, but the setup of the courses has been increasingly questionable over years. The prototypical U.S. Open setup features long holes, narrow fairways, deep rough, and firm, fast greens.
And how do they get super fast greens? They don’t water them. Unfortunately, in 2004, using that strategy, they made a collossal misjudgement. On Sunday it became impossible to hold the 7th green at Shinnecock. The first four players played the hole in a combined 10 over par. There were are alarming three triple bogeys and one bogey. The USGA then decided to water the green after every two or three groups came through.
As the story goes, they didn’t water the greens before Jeff Maggert’s group and he made a special request to water the green before he hit his tee shot. Maggert said they told him, “We water it when we feel like it.” Billy Mayfair putted into the greenside bunker on 7 and ended up shooting an 89. After a seemingly perfect Charles Howell III shot rolled into the greenside bunker, the gallery actually booed the hole.
In 1989 at the Olympic Club, fast greens and an ill advised pin position made it impossible to stop a downhill putt anywhere near the hole. In order to stop his ball as it was rolling further away from the hole a frustrated Kirk Triplett put his putter in front of his ball while it was still moving invoking a two stroke penalty (he was going to miss the cut anyway).
Poor Billy Horshel didn’t like the greens last year at Chambers Bay at all; “We’re not looking for perfect greens. We’re not looking for Memorial’s greens or even last week in Memphis. But we’re looking for something that’s very consistent and this week they’re not…four is God awful. Ten is not much better…that hole is in dirt. It’s literally dirt. There’s no grass around that hole.” And hearing Billy Horshel complain about anything would be like hearing Jay-Z complain about Beyonce’s cooking; there’s zero chance I would feel any sympathy. However, I do think he has a point. Why not just play the course moderately fast and firm? Why take a risk that it gets out of control? Why this fear of scoring? People like to see birdies. A ten-footer for par is like wheat toast. Yawn.
In addition to the tweaks to the course conditions, the USGA also almost always shortens (slightly) two of the par 5s to make them par 4’s and changes the regular course par from 72 to 70. The purpose to is to make it so that the winning score is close to even par. I don’t really get the point. By that logic, you could make par whatever you want. Why not change a couple of the par 3s to par 2s and then 8 over would be the target winning score? And wouldn’t that really show how tough the course is.
The other problem with changing par 5s to par 4s is that it significantly modifies the aesthetic and strategy of a hole. For example, think about the two shortish par 5s at Augusta, 13 and 15. They both have a creek in front that forces players to make a great shot to get on the green in two. If you shorten them slightly and make it a par 4 then the strategy goes away. You have to go for it every time. If the USGA held the U.S. Open at Augusta they would absolutely make one of those holes a par 4. And that just sounds ridiculous.
The other course setup tradition, deep rough, makes hitting the fairway very important as it becomes difficult to stop approach shots on the fast, hard greens. But deep rough also removes some of the strategy of approach shots. There is little a player can do from deep rough except to swing hard and play to the fat of the green. There is no chance of working the ball from 4 inch rough. Do you want apply more or less spin on your shot? Well, don’t worry about that from deep rough. One of the great things about watching professional golfers is the incredible shots they make from trouble. Watching a player try to hit a low runner or a high cut to avoid a tree and then seeing them pull it off is > a deep gouge from 4-5 inch grass.
Recent setups have changed some of this. The USGA moved away from the deep rough setup for the 2014 event at Pinehurst. In an attempt to have the course play more like the original Donald Ross design they only had two cuts of rough. Martin Kaymer blitzed the field with an overall score of nine under. Eric Compton and Rickie Fowler tied for second at one under so, USGA, you can be comfortable that your fake par was not compromised.
What’s good about the U.S. Open? Local qualifying is a great concept. Players that make it out of local qualifiers get to compete against pros at sectional qualifying and possibly live a dream by playing in the U.S. Open.
Memorable duels include Tom Watson beating Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach, not to mention the Tiger Woods – Rocco Mediate tete-a-tete battle. However, the memorable U.S. Opens have often involved massive failure: Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot, Arnold Palmer at Olympic, Colin Montgomerie at Oakmont, Congressional and Winged Foot, Dustin Johnson at Chambers Bay.
What it comes down to it, the controversial course setups of the U.S. Open often overshadow the competition and that’s not always a good thing. Hopefully in the future this issue can be mediated, but for now, let's enjoy another four days of the pros being challenged by the biggest, baddest courses around.