ERIN, Wisconsin — The first instinct is to blame it on the rain. Scores are so low in this U.S. Open and Erin Hills is so toothless because the greens are so soft. There is a grain of truth in that. But what also might be true is that the U.S. Golf Association has gone soft.
By making the fairways so wide that the Green Bay Packers could hold a decent scrimmage on them going from one side to the other, by wimping out on the fescue after one pro complained, by holding yet another event on a venue with no trees in play, the USGA seemingly has lost its fastball.
Maybe this is not a bad thing. Possibly the public wants what Rickie Fowler Saturday called more “offense.” Birdies are exciting. Except that golf fans get to see those every other week of the year. The U.S. Open is supposed to be brutish and punishing. What we have seen so far has not been the U.S. Open.
Take it from no less an authority than Justin Thomas, who shot 63 and became the first ever to shoot 9 under par in a U.S. Open round. Moments after making history, he said, “I feel like the U.S. Open is supposed to be very uncomfortable. I think it’s kind of what the USGA and U.S. Open are known for: Making you kind of hate yourself and hate golf, just really struggle out there.”
He added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
We know what he means. The achievement in winning the Open and the fun in watching it both lie in the struggle. There has been nothing at Erin Hills this week to make a golfer quake. No hole has been memorable in the sense that it posed a threat that could make the wheels fall off, such as the water-guarded short par-3 12th at Augusta National.
The USGA’s strategy was to grow the fescue high and hope the wind blew. The wind has been absent. And the association pulled its punch after Kevin Na issued a scorching Instagram post, sending the mowers out on Tuesday. Officials said it was just a coincidence, but it does make a serious golf observer worry that the USGA is too much like the rest of us: afraid of getting yelled at. We saw how the PGA of America caved to the players after Phil Mickelson’s childish public rant against Tom Watson at a Ryder Cup news conference. What’s next?
Johnny Miller shot 63 at rain-softened Oakmont 44 years ago, but his was an isolated case, not a field-wide assault on par. Saturday, he told Golf Channel, “It’s interesting to see where the USGA has gone with the U.S. Open, being a little more friendly than in years past.”
“Interesting” is a euphemism for the mistake of relying on the old thinking that longer equals tougher. That does not wash any more. Pros are too good and too strong now. Thomas said, “You can’t have a 8,100-yard course. That’s just dumb. All you need is narrow fairways, small firm greens, severe rough. That’s all it is. I would hope that courses don’t keep going longer and longer. It’s really not fun or fair for everybody. But you never know.”
This observer is nervous that the Open again could be a birdie festival at Shinnecock Hills next year. It could happen if the wind does not appear (a la 2004) and the rough does not grow. Early reports are that fairways already have been widened.
The Open is supposed to present a test involving conditions and pressure. So far this year, pressure has been on its own.
Maybe the USGA will decide to take a benign route, that the Open looks better this way. But from this vantage point, it just doesn’t look like the Open.
Justin Thomas’ 63 yesterday matches the lowest round in U.S. Open play (or any of the four professional majors). The four other golfers who carded 63s in the U.S. Open:
2003Vijay Singh Second Olympia Fields
1980Jack Nicklaus First Baltusrol
1980Tom Weiskopf First Baltusrol
1973Johnny Miller Fourth Oakmont