Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The 118th U.S. Open Has Given Us A Little Bit of Everything Heading Into Sunday's Final Round

Gusty winds and firm conditions on Thursday made the first round of the U.S. Open at Shinnicock Hills extremely challenging.  Easier pin positions and unexpected rain softened the course on Friday making the second round scoring average almost three strokes lower. 


After 36  holes Dustin Johnson led the field, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods were sent packing, and the cut line (8-over par) was the highest since 2013 at Merion.  On Saturday however, the carnage reached a completely new level. 

Winds blew stronger than expected and some pin positions became maniacal.  The sun beat down hard and glassed the greens.  The USGA admitted to crossing a line, and of course there was that Phil thing.  What's going to happen Sunday?  A closer look at the first three days gives a very good indication of what will happen in the final round.

Round 1 
Shinnecock is known as second shot course, and Thursday proved that to be an understatement.  The field hit 70.7-percent of the fairways, but only 48-percent of the greens and the scores reflected that. 


Players complained about dicey pin positions, as 29 players posted scores equal to or greater than 80 - the most in the opening round of a U.S. Open since 1986 at Shinnecock. 


Only four players broke par - including Dustin Johnson, and the field scoring average was 76.47.  Notables who took a beating included Brooks Koepka plus-5 (75), Phil Mickelson plus-7 (77), Tiger Woods plus-8 (78),  Jason Day plus-9 (79), and Rory McIlroy plus-10 (80). 


Round 2 
Dustin Johnson posted a score of 67 - good for his best round at the U.S. Open since his first-round 67 at Oakmont.  It also marked the 6th time Johnson has led or tied for the lead at the U.S. Open.  On Friday players were hitting more greens, making more putts, and posting lower scores - predominantly because pin positions were easier, winds were down, and rains had softened the course.  Shinnecock was still demanding, but also more getable. 


Tiger Woods missed the cut for the third time in 20 U.S. Open starts, and two other players who owned two of the three longest running strings of consecutive cuts made at the U.S. Open also missed the weekend.  Sergio Garcia's string of 10 straight cuts-made was snapped and Matt Kuchar's 8 straight appearances also ended. 


The most difficult par-3 going into the weekend was No. 2, and heading into the weekend this long par-3 ranked as the third most difficult par-3 in U.S. Open history since 1970 (I did tell you to watch out for this hole in my Shinnecock preview).

Round 3 and What to Expect on Sunday
Phil Mickelson went full tilt on No. 13 and hit his ball back towards the hole while it was still moving in the opposite direction on the green.  Pins on hole Nos. 13 and 15, and to a lesser extent No. 14 were almost impossible to get close to.  Most of the greens played like they were glassed, and some players intentionally hit short of the cup to avoid the risk of sliding off long. 


Mickelson was penalized 2 strokes, and most fans would probably have been fine with that.  However, after the round Lefty said he "used the rules to his advantage," and anyone who doesn't like it needs to "toughen up " - and that's just not a good look for a Hall of Fame player who's arguably the games biggest ambassador.  

The big picture is - right or wrong, had it been another player, he'd have been disqualified.  Phil got the benefit of being Phil.  Was it funny?  Sure - in the sense he did what many of us who play have at one point probably wanted to do, or have done.  Down the road it won't be an enormous smudge on his legacy, but Phil acting like an immature brat at aU.S. Open rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. 


The USGA is taking flack this morning for Saturday's course set-up, which had players and fans howling.  Were the glass greens and pin positions intentionally sadistic?  Was it unintentional - in which case the lack of foreseeability borders on incompetence?  It's neither.  

They acknowledged a mistake but didn't have to, and shouldn't have. This is the U.S. Open. The course is supposed to be more difficult than any venue of the year. To score and sometimes just survive at a U.S. Open, players have to hit certain shots that require both a higher standard of skill and a heightened sense of patience. 

Wind conditions, turf conditions, and design angles all force players to either play shots safe, or with a precision and high risk of danger they're unaccustomed to.  When it doesn't work out, they start to complain.  And then because social media is often a herd mentality, there's more complaining. Truth be told anyone that's complete and utter hogwash.  

I hope the USGA remains defiant to the toughest Sunday locations and tucks some pins in absolutely brutal locations.  However, I'm expecting they'll probably throw out quite a few gettable pins on Sunday instead.  They'll buckle under the pressure, when it should be the other way around. 


The final round Sunday will be a great test of golf, but it won't be the best test we'll see all week.  That already happened on Saturday.  Shinnecock played the way you'd want and expect our national championship to play.  No amount of criticism, however unfounded and misguided can change that.