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  • Alistair Tait

Hell bent on Old Man Par

Sometimes it feels as if the United States Golf Association is stuck in the Bobby Jones age. The governing body is hell bent on protecting Jones’s biggest opponent: Old Man Par.

We’re going to see it again this week at Winged Foot for the 120th running of America’s national championship. It could be a bloodbath, just what the blazers from Far Hills New Jersey seem to enjoy.

How do you spell “schadenfreude?”

Jones always said his main opponent was the card of the course. In Down the Fairway he writes:

“I never won a major championship until I learned to play golf against something, and not somebody. And that something was par.”

Jones said he learned that valuable lesson the first time he shot 80 at East Lake. He wrote:

“I suppose that is the first round I ever played against the invisible opponent whose tangible form is the card and the pencil; the toughest opponent of them all – Old Man Par.”

The USGA seems to have tattooed that mantra onto the arm of every CEO, despite statements to the contrary. You have to think former USGA boss Sandy Tatum had his fingers crossed behind his back when he said:

“We’re not trying to humiliate the greatest players in the world: we’re trying to identify them.”

You can bet many players over the years have scoffed at that suggestion given the lengths to which the governing body has gone to trick up courses. The USGA seems hell bent on protecting Old Man Par every time it stages America's national championship.

Remember two years ago when Phil Mickelson became so exasperated with the Shinnecock Hills greens he tried to stop his ball from rolling off the 13th green after his 20-foot bogey putt seemed to develop legs and kept on running? Maybe the reason the USGA chickened out on disqualifying Leftie was because they knew they’d messed up.

It wasn’t the first time Shinnecock greens frustrated the players. The USGA let them get so close to the edge in 2004, greens staff were having to water them between groups either to keep them alive or make them remotely playable. Perhaps both.

How about Chambers Bay in 2015? The greens looked like giant poppadums. Henrik Stenson said it was like “putting on broccoli.” Ian Poulter, in typical forthright fashion, lambasted the USGA. He said:

“They were simply the worst most disgraceful surfaces I have ever seen on any tour in all the years I have played.”

How about Bethpage Black in 2002? The carry to reach the 10th fairway was 260 yards. That sounds short nowadays, but 18 years ago some players struggled to get their tee shots on the short grass, especially into the wind.

Greens that seem to reject golf balls are de rigueur. I covered the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The pin for the par-3 fifth hole was placed right at the back of the green for one round, and players found it nearly impossible to stop balls near the pin. Balls were landing, stopping and then gravity took them back down to the front of the green.

As Alun Evans notes in his excellent book The Golf Majors 2020:

“The U.S. Open has proved to be the most difficult major for low scoring.”

Rory McIlroy is the only player to break 270 in a U.S. Open, which he did in 2011 at Congressional with a 12-under 268. That must’ve had the USGA blazers spitting into their martinis.

Until Rory destroyed Congressional, a two-way tied of 271 was the lowest 72-hole total. Martin Kaymer achieved that in 2014, while Gary Woodland matched it last year.

Don’t expect a sub 270 tally this week, or even a sub 280, level par over the 7,477-yard, par-70 A.W. Tillinghast layout. Geoff Ogilvy was five over when he won the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Hale Irwin was plus 7 in 1974 when he won the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” A similar score will be manna from heaven for the USGA, so will any aggregate that doesn’t threaten Old Man Par.

Quite why the USGA seems to go out of its way to trick up courses is hard to fathom. What are they afraid of? Its why I prefer the Open Championship. (Yes, I’m biased as a Scot.) Apart from 1999 when the R&A turned Carnoustie into “Carnasty,” the governing body, by and large, seems to accept what Mother Nature dictates and goes with it. No tricking up, no trying to take greens to the verge of extinction. If only the USGA had the same attitude then we wouldn’t feel as if we’re witnessing a tournament at Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors every year.

It could be like lambs being led to slaughter this week.

#JustSaying: “The players haven't put a pencil in their hand yet, so we'll wait and see. When you think about some of the greatest US Open players of all time - Bob Jones, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods - you never heard them complain.” USGA CEO Mike Davis on how players will react to the setup of Winged Foot

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Sep 18, 2020

Shinnecock 2 years ago was ludicrous. It was almost an admission that they and the R&A have let distance get so out of hand that the only thing they can do to combat it is to set up the courses as hard as possible.


Sep 17, 2020

Pretty much spot on Alistar.

IMO there's a line between a penal setup and a sadistic one. I don't always know how to define that line in advance, but I can identify the difference when I see it. Why the USGA still feels it needs to straddle that line to the point of often falling over to the sadistic side is beyond me.

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