US Open 2018: Shinnecock Hills course so tough pros in danger of looking like weekend hackers
By Mark Douglass
Even Tiger Woods in his prime has lost battles with the Shinnecock course in the past. (AP: Gregory Bull)
It’s a common sight on municipal courses.
A first tee shot hooked wildly in to the rough. Then, in an effort to counter the error, the weekend hacker takes a cunning change in stance to neutralise it. Only to produce a slice to the opposite, but no less disastrous, direction.
Could it be that the USGA are about to make the same mistake, guilty of over-correcting with this year’s US Open course configuration?
Shinnecock Hills has been lengthened by 500 yards but the par score has been unaltered. (Brad Penner: USA TODAY Sports)
Last year’s Erin Hills course was plundered by the field. Too easy, critics said. No kind of test.
No one will be saying that about Shinnecock Hills, the venue for this year’s tournament.
Some 500 yards has been added to the already challenging 18 holes, but the par score unmoved.
The fairways are narrow and the bunkers plentiful. A beast of a course that even the very best will struggle to tame.
And some of the leading pros are not happy about it. Not happy at all.
“You dream of winning these tournaments as a child and you work hours and hours and you fly in days and days and do all this prep work and then you are left to chance the outcome as opposed to skill,” says five-time major winner Phil Mickelson.
“That’s a problem.”
Before too much sympathy is offered, however, it is worth noting that even before last year’s cakewalk, some were raising questions over the design there, too.
And the unplayable fescue away from the course’s pristine fairways made for great viral clips on social media, most notably Kevin Na’s furious thrashing at the long grass and howling at the moon.
But it soon became apparent that to reach the rough at Erin Hills you had to hit incredibly poor shots. Those fairways in some parts were a very generous 60 yards wide.
Drive it straight and there were birdies aplenty, as Brooks Keopka proved on his way to a 16-under total and his first major title.
The US Golf Association would prefer the winning score of its annual major to be much closer to par.
Staff water the grass at Shinnecock Hills after deciding the green was too dry and fast during the 2004 US Open. (Action Images: Brandon Malone)
And so we return to Shinnecock Hills.
Established in the 1800’s, Shinnecock Hills has hosted four previous editions of the US Open. It’s not a typical US course.
It sits on the east end of New York’s Long Island, exposed to the elements. The course more closely resembles a British Isles links style layout than the immaculately manicured courses dotted all over the United States.
When Shinnecock last hosted the US Open in 2004, South Africa’s Retief Goosen claimed victory at 4-under. Only three players broke par over four rounds.
Tiger Woods, then in his prime, finished 10 over. He was still inside the top 20.
Back then the par-three seventh hole almost ruined the tournament.
The USGA left the green so dry, it become almost impossible to land a shot and have it stay on the putting surface. Greenskeepers intermittently watered the hole between groups during the third round. It was hardly a level playing field.
This weekend the whole course will be a testing undertaking, but two holes in particular are set to acquaint champions of the sport with just a little, perhaps, of the regular frustrations of lesser players.
Weighing in at a formidable 519 yards, the par-four 14th would be a par-five in most club competitions.
Bunkers guard a narrow fairway, and if the wind blows there could be carnage.
The par-five 16th, too, has already been criticised for falling on the wrong side of the fair play ledger.
There’s no easy route to birdie. Even the longest hitters in the world won’t be able to attack this monster.
The hole generally plays longer into the prevailing wind. Players who manage a par will almost certainly gain ground on the field.
“I think it’s a very difficult job to find the line of testing the best players to the greatest degree and then making it carnival golf,” Mickelson said.
“The USGA is doing the best they can to find that line. A lot of times they do and sometimes they cross over it but it’s not an easy job.”
World number eight Jason Day heads a 9-man Australian challenge. He’s taking a typically pragmatic approach to the challenge ahead as he chases a second major title.
“Whatever you get, you get,” he says. “You just suck it up and keep going.”