Soft U.S. Open Course Did McIlroy 'A Few Favors'
Watching the world’s best golfers dig their balls out of deep, damp rough at Congressional with shots that held the softened greens caused some viewers to scratch their heads and wonder. Were those guys really playing in the United States Open Golf Championship?
U.S. Open courses are supposed to be hard as pavement and fast as lightning with pin placements that few can cozy up to. United States Golf Association officials, who conduct this second major championship each year, used to take great pride in protecting par and making the U.S.Open the toughest of the four majors.
Mike Davis, the rookie executive director of the USGA, who set up U.S. Open courses for years when he was the USGA director of rules and competitions, came up short of his target this time. And “short” is the operative word for the unusual U.S. Open playing conditions.
The USGA, led by Davis, blamed the hot and rainy weather that preceded the tournament for the soft Congressional golf course and thus the very low scoring.
While Mother Nature may be to blame for the rain that softened the course a bit, she can’t be faulted for setting the pins, cutting wide fairways and moving up the tees on many holes. The Congressional Blue Course plays to 7,574 yards from the very tips. But Davis and his USGA associates never played the course at its full length during any of the four rounds of the Open.
By moving the tees forward considerably on some holes, the USGA put wedges or other short irons in the hands of the world’s best golfers for numerous second or approach shots on par-4 holes. Two former U.S.Open champions, Johnny Miller on television and Curtis Strange on radio, questioned these moves during their coverage.
With wedges in their hands, what did Davis expect of these superb golfers? Bogeys?
The U.S.Open is famous for making every pro in the field struggle mightily to achieve par on any hole. But last week the leading 30 or so pros were simply working hard to achieve birdies when they were lofting high, short wedge shots into soft greens.
To question the setup and condition of Congressional this year in no way diminishes what the fine young man from Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy, achieved by setting all sorts of U.S.Open records as he ran away and hid with a 16-under-par 268 for an 8-shot triumph. Playing as he did, McIlroy would have won on any “normal” U.S.Open course or any other course setup imaginable. He was so much better than anyone else in the field that there was no way a mere golf course could stop him. He would have won the Open if it had been played down I-95.
But the USGA has to be somewhat embarrassed. It is not used to having dozens of golfers make the U.S.Open look like just another stop on the PGA Tour.
Seven days ago a record 20 golfers finished below par for the regulation four rounds of the 111th United States Open Golf Championship.
Two previous Congressional U.S Opens, 1964 and 1997, produced winners at 2 under par and 4 under par, respectively. Ken Venturi, the 1964 Champion at Congressional, played 36 holes the final day in such heat and humidity that he became ill and nearly passed out while completing the tournament on a course that was hard and fast despite the muggy conditions so common to metropolitan Washington, D.C., in June.
Even McIlroy acknowledged the unusual U.S. Open condition of Congressional when he said, “I think the course did me a few favors this week.”
Curtis Strange, a two-time U.S.Open Champion (1988 and 1989), said during the ESPN Radio coverage of the Open last Sunday that Congressional just did not appear to be like a U.S.Open course.
“It’s like the old Kemper Open,” Strange said. “And the scores are like the old Kemper Open.”
Granted that when the Kemper Open was an annual PGA Tour event played at Congressional years ago, the course configuration was a bit different than it is today. But it is still the same basic track that Reese Jones tweaked a bit for the Open. During the years of the Kemper Open, Congressional was played at par 72 and also at par 70. Last week’s Open played at par 71.
In comparing this Open to the old Kemper Open, Strange hinted that there were even fewer low scores in those days than there were in this year’s U.S. Open. He was partially correct.
Craig Stadler won the Kemper Open 30 years ago with a 10-under-par 270. That was one of those years when the PGA Tour played the course at par 70. Tom Watson and Tom Weiskopf were tied for second, six shots back at 4 under par. Only five other golfers finished that Kemper Open under par as eight played sub-par on Congressional in that 1981 Kemper Open.
There was heavy rain during the first round of that Kemper Open, forcing a suspension of play late Thursday afternoon. Friday and Sunday rain showers did not interrupt play. All in all, the course stood up to the weather.
Of course, equipment is very different than it was three decades ago. Also, the average Tour golfer may be slightly bigger and maybe even stronger than he was 30 years ago. But Rory McIlroy is not the largest man to come down the pike these days. He just has the best swing anyone has seen in the game since Sammy Snead’s sweet wallop. Also, McIlroy hits a drive very far and quite accurately.
Curtis Strange spoke about how any U.S. Open Champion is very proud of his achievement because, as Strange explained, U.S. Open champions win the premier national title under the toughest conditions of play in the sport of golf on one of the finest courses in the United States. Strange seemed to imply that this U.S. Open did not present the “toughest conditions.”
Strange won on The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., in 1988, by beating Nick Faldo in a Monday playoff and then repeated in 1989 by winning in regulation four rounds at Oak Hills in Rochester, N.Y.
The 1989 U.S.Open was plagued by extremely heavy rain storms that resulted in firetrucks pumping water off parts of the course the morning of the third round. Yet the Donald Ross-designed Oak Hills course stood the test and remained hard and fast. Strange shot 2 under to win by one shot over three golfers. Thus, only four players were under par despite the rain and heat in Rochester that weekend.
That is the scoring one expects at a U.S. Open.
Billy Kratzert, a former PGA Tour player who was working at Congressional with Curtis Strange on last Sunday’s radio broadcast, almost insulted the USGA setup with the truth when he said, “Holes five through nine are cupcakes.”
Never before has anyone referred to one or more holes on a U.S.Open Championship course as “cupcakes.”
Here’s hoping the USGA reverts to hard and fast courses at Olympic in San Francisco, Merion on the Philadelphia Main Line, and here at Pinehurst No. 2 for the next three U.S. Opens.
A golf traditionalist might say that a 16-under-par winner plus a score of golfers below par is no way to crown a U.S.Open Golf Champion.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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