U.S. Open Reaction: The Sole Good, The Mostly Bad, and the Incredibly Ugly (Course)

Spieth did it again! Albeit he backed into winning after Dustin Johnson three putted the 72nd hole and blew his chances to win or force a playoff. The playoff would have been another full 18 holes today. I think I speak for us all when I say that we mercifully dodged a bullet when Johnson missed his birdie. Personally, with the great look he had at eagle, I was hoping for a one- or three-putt. Two would have been the worst. This tournament had a phenomenal finish, but the end should not justify the means. It was a brutal tournament and the adjective that kept popping up was “unwatchable.”

How did it come to be this way? How could a major tournament with so much proud tradition become so miserable to behold? How could a custodian like the USGA be responsible for what we were watching? 

We can attribute the answer to a slurry of factors–the course conditions, the broadcasting, or the delusional USGA. All played their part in the misery. What was supposed to be the magnum opus of American golf, turned out to be a contrived and derivative attempt to engineer drama. 

The Course

We’ll start with the leading lady–Chambers Bay. This course is nestled at the base of the whitecap mountains of Olympic National Park, comfortably south of Seattle proper alongside the Puget Sound. The views are breathtaking, especially given the notion that it used to be a sand and rock quarry. But, great views in the Pacific Northwest are pretty easy to come by, it’s the track and layout that really matter. 

The course is just shy of 7,600 yards from the tips, which sounds long–and is for most–were it not for the major elevation changes that make the course play somewhat shorter. For mortals, it is a par 72 course; however, the easiest way to up the difficulty without making any changes is to cut the par to 70, which they did. With pros getting longer and longer off the tee, we are headed for an era where par 70 is the new standard. Cutting par is common. Knock down two par 5s to par 4s or maybe a short 4 to a 3, and you’ve got a course that will play harder simply on the premise of moving the goalposts. 

The USGA was not satisfied with only this, though. One thing you need to know about the USGA is that they have an obsession with par. Softer “scoring” courses are not palatable to them. The USGA believes that shooting even par should be enough to give you–or at least to keep you within striking distance of–the outright lead. So, they went to work on the grounds. 

Now, before you blame the grounds crew, consider this: they were just doing what they were told. The issues with the course should be lodged with the USGA. The course was a mix of fescue and poa annua grass. The greens were double cut and the fairways and first cut were shaved bare and dried. Think about how many otherwise good shots rolled into trouble because they wouldn’t stop. Additionally, the fescue–a naturally long-bladed grass like hay–was allowed to grow wild in the rough areas and in several strategically unmowed patches in the fairway. You hit it in there, you stood a great chance of outright losing your golf ball. Sure, the fairways were hard as a rock and the lies were incredibly tight so as to mimic hitting off a cart path, but that’s been seen before. The primary problem for the golfers were the “greens” and the problem for the patrons was the slope and appearance of the course. 

The course was an eyesore. It looked dead and withered. The greens were only so in name only, and actually took on a tannish hue. The course looked like your local municipal course that has gone to hell because of poor upkeep. Chambers Bay did not play its role very well. Additionally, it was an absolutely atrocious course for patrons. Good vantage points were few and far between, and several people were injured just trying to navigate the hellish terrain. Those are not the story lines the USGA wants accompanying its flagship tournament. 

Then, we consider the golfers and the greens. The complaining about the conditions of the greens reached a dull roar with all the outspoken golfers. Golfers like Billy Horschel, Ian Poulter, and Henrik Stenson–all top 30 in Strokes Gained Putting for 2015–struggled mightily to read the fescue grain. One golfer even likened it to “putting on broccoli.” Horschel in an interview said he lost respect for the USGA this week. The media–social and otherwise–was quick to kill him on this statement. But considering how the USGA was congratulating itself on the course conditions, a loss of respect is warranted. The greens were not puttable; worse still, they were not consistent from hole to hole. Most of the golfers became Cervantes’s Quixote trying to slay the Chambers Bay dragon, but, like Quixote, were foolish to believe it could truly be done. Let me also squash the argument that the players “all played the same course.” Technically, yes, they all played a course named Chambers Bay. However, the course was so dynamic from hole to hole and with the changing conditions as the days wore on, no golfer ever played the same course as the player ahead of him or behind him. Simply casting it off by saying the playing field was level is false purism and displays an ignorance ordinarily reserved for lesser sport. 

This wasn’t a golf tournament, it was a cage match where the course delivered body blow after body blow and the one able to outlast the attrition was declared the winner. Sometimes that is what golf is about, but it shouldn’t have been this weekend. 

The Broadcasting

Joe Buck has one of the best broadcasting voices in a generation. He’s a natural for baseball and even football broadcasting–though Aikman is the one who really carries the water on the latter. That said, he shouldn’t even be allowed near another U.S. Open. His commentary was pedantic, shallow, and solely meant to fill the silence. 

Buck doesn’t know the first thing about the nuances of golf apart from the definitions and what things are–even then, it’s sketchy at best. He also is too used to the manner in which post game interviews are conducted in football. He pounced on Spieth and asked him–after Spieth backed into a victory–about winning the Open Championship and about the grand slams. Listen, Joe, the next major is a month away, and people would rather hear about his thoughts on the course that he just played. Stop hassling this kid, he’s not going to give you the sound bite you usually get from overexuberant football players. Slow your roll, Buck. It’s not a good look for FOX and its broadcasters to be chomping at the bit. 

Not like it matters, the production value was so depressed, it’s unlikely FOX ever gets another major tournament in the next 20 years–that’s probably a gross overestimate because people like to do stupid things repeatedly. Still, FS1–FOX’s ESPN–handled the first two days of the broadcast. Thankfully, I was at work for most of this. However, what I did see was awful. FS1 personalities were worse than Buck because they had no idea what was going on, so they resorted to asinine cliches and canned commentary. In the few hours of coverage, I cannot recall one valid and insightful point being made by the FS1 squad. The talent needs a major upgrade. 

As does the technology; the graphics overlay of the tournament was rough on Thursday and Friday, and crashed outright before all was said and done. Still, it seemed better on the weekend when it moved to FOX proper. Further harming their credibility, FOX broke to commercial a couple times with riffs from popular songs. The one that stuck out was Eminem’s Lose Yourself. It just didn’t fit. The entire production had the fit and feel of a one-size-fits-all approach that happened to feature golf this time. There seemed to be no effort made to customize the broadcast. It was almost like FOX found out the week before that it would be showing the U.S. Open and had to scramble–forgive the pun–to get it done in time. 

FOX tends to do a great job with most live sports, and they will probably get another shot at golf soon. But, they have to do a better job. When your coverage makes Mike Tirico look sharp as a tack with his golf insight, you’re doing it wrong. Add more golf specific talent, get rid of Buck, and fix your damn computers so we can enjoy FOX’s coverage of the next major. 

Also, don’t put microphones in the holes again. 

The USGA

I’m a proud member of the USGA and a horrible golfer. I’ve emotionally dealt with the fact that I will never hit a 3-wood/5-iron combination 606 yards to within 20 feet of the 72nd hole in a major–that’s what Dustin Johnson did. For me, like most people, golf is a hobby and a pastime that is a phenomenal way to get as angry as human capacity allows over the span of four hours outside. The USGA–not the PGA as some believe–is American golf’s regulatory body. Any changes or interpretations on the Rules of Golf often come down jointly from the USGA and the R&A, golf’s founding organization and Europe’s regulator. 

Billy Horschel made an appearance in the foregoing regarding his loss of respect for the USGA after this tournament. Many golfers, like Ian Poulter have been just as vocal about the USGA being as deluded as they have about the shoddy greens. Mike Davis, the head of the USGA, came out and said repeatedly how pleased they were with the course conditions. He put himself out in front of the criticism. There is no way he believed a word of what he was saying. The head of one of golf’s rule making bodies is no fool. Make no mistake, these statements are nothing more than perception management, to believe otherwise is to choose to be ignorant. The course was in bad shape, and to insult the intelligence of the public–and the players–by telling them the course is in phenomenal shape is embarrassing. 

The worst part is: the tournament had a finish for the ages and my fear is that the USGA will see the end justify the means. Be prepared to see more unwatchable tournaments in dingy tracks. 

Hey, they can’t all be Pebble Beach. 

(I don’t see why not, but that’s just me.)

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