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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

U.S. Open needs to get back on course after rough stretch

Dustin Johnson of the US lines up his

Dustin Johnson of the US lines up his putt on the fifteenth hole during the final round at the US Open golf championship on Sunday, June 19, 2016 at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: EPA/ Tannen Maury

ERIN, Wis. — The U.S. Open, as brutish and humbling sporting event as you will find, has produced many a redemption story over the years. Maybe none was ever as big, though, as this year’s comeback candidate: The U.S. Open itself.

America’s national championship is looking to get its mojo back after a rough stretch. The U.S. Golf Association has been on a roll with its crown jewel, all downhill. The roughest part actually might be deciding precisely where things started going south.

Possibly it was the borderline impossible hole location at the Olympic Club in 1998. Or maybe the tempest over the setup at Bethpage Black in 2002, when the rain and wind prevented some established pros from even reaching the 10th fairway with their tee shots. There was the legendary debacle at Shinnecock Hills in 2004, when officials overcompensated for the lack of wind by allowing the greens to burn to a crisp (then had to compensate for the overcompensation by watering greens during the final round).

Who can forget the boondoggle at Bethpage in 2009, when ticket-holders who never saw one shot were denied refunds? Certainly not the ticket-holders (who eventually were allowed in for free to the Monday conclusion).

The USGA outdid itself in the past two years, first with the debacle at Chambers Bay, a reportedly charming layout when it is not hosting a U.S. Open. In June, 2015, the greens were bumpy and the grass became an unsightly brown. Then there was the fiasco involving a ruling against Dustin Johnson last year at Oakmont, when the Open leader was told later during his round that he was penalized because his ball had moved on a previous green. Johnson saved the USGA from more embarrassment by winning the championship.

A day later, the association issued an apology. Months later, it changed the rule.

Now it is aiming for a nice, smooth ride for years to come. It seems like a roll of the dice that they had seven years ago chose a brand new course, Erin Hills, to be the host. Aside from a little caterwauling about the tall dense fescue on the distant borders of the holes, the course has received many positive reviews (at the very least, it is no Chambers Bay). And even the caterwaulers have had their day in the sun, what with workers trimming the high stuff on four holes Tuesday morning.

Good news: the Open is scheduled to be held a series of tried-and-true historic beauties starting with Shinnecock Hills next June.

Better news: Despite all of that, the U.S. Open still is the U.S. Open. It still has cachet. It still deserves esteem.

“Look, it’s got a long, long history and we absolutely must respect that,” Adam Scott said Tuesday, implying that the USGA has been trying to keep the Open the same in a changing world. He understands and is not upset about it.

“I think the way the game has evolved, with the players and equipment and everything, pushing it to get that (par) score teeters on the edge,” he said. “So, when controversies happen, it can take some of the gloss off the grandeur of this event. But we can’t forget the history.”

Jason Day said he likes the challenge of tough conditions. Rory McIlroy was stunned and not thrilled when he was told about the fescue-chopping. “We’ve got 60 yards from the left line to the right line . . . If we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home,” the 2011 U.S. Open champion said.

Maybe the weed whackers were the USGA’s olive branch, a first step at stamping out the latest controversy before it starts. Possibly it was the beginning of the comeback.

Here’s hoping the U.S. Open can simply be the U.S. Open, the toughest tournament to win and the easiest to respect.

New York Sports