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U.S. Open: Shinnecock Hills will be a stern test

Field Level Media
June 14. 2018 12:40AM
Charles Howell walks down the 1st fairway after teeing off during Wednesday's practice round of the 118th U.S. Open golf tournament at Shinnecock Hills. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

If it seems like the whole focus of this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southhampton, N.Y., is making sure things go off without a hitch, well, there’s a reason for that.

The last time the national championship of American golf was played at this venue, in 2004, brutal conditions led to an average final-round score of 78.7 and no players under par.

The famous par-3 seventh took its pound of flesh from the players and was nearly unplayable because of, according to the United States Golf Association (USGA), a “perfect storm” of wind, sun, hole location and the accidental rolling of the green prior to the third round.

Shinnecock Hills is one of the five founding clubs of the USGA back in 1894.The second-ever U.S. Open was held at this venue in 1896, but 90 years went by before it hosted again.

The 2010 U.S. Open champion, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, said the USGA’s “line” for fairness of a golf course under national championship competition starts and finishes on the greens.

“I watched the coverage of 2004’s final round on television and the greens looked to be about a foot too quick,” McDowell explained. “That was the root of the problem. And that is the most important line. It is architecture versus agronomy. When you have old-school architecture mixed with modern agronomy it can lead to trouble.”

After seeing players dominate the long and wide Erin Hills in Wisconsin in last year’s U.S. Open, the USGA ordered a fairway narrowing at Shinnecock Hills in the fall of 2017.

The greens that were tough in 2004 are still going to be a challenge, but there are better course-management tools in place to make sure that what happened in 2004 won’t happen this time around.

The starting field of 156 golfers will be cut after 36 holes to the low 60 scorers (and ties). In the event of a tie after 72 holes, a two-hole aggregate playoff will take place following the completion of Sunday’s final round. It’s the first year that this tiebreaker has been employed by the USGA.

This is the fifth U.S. Open hosted by Shinnecock Hills, which will be set up at 7,440 yards and will play to a par of 35-35-70. The yardage for each round of the championship will vary due to course setup and conditions.

The former champions are James Foulis in 1896, Raymond Floyd in 1986, Corey Pavin in 1995 and South African Retief Goosen in 2004.

The 1986 edition was held on a completely revamped course. Floyd, at age 43, entered the final round three shots behind and shot a 66 in difficult scoring conditions to win his fourth major. Conditions were similar in 1995, with no one under par. Pavin played the final 10 holes in three-under-par on the way to a 68 and the win.

Then in 2004, with the final round of the championship being conducted in dry and breezy conditions that made some of the putting surfaces all but unplayable, Goosen birdied the 16th hole while Phil Mickelson double-bogeyed the par-3 17th. Goosen won by two strokes and claimed his second U.S. Open title.

Mickelson will be playing in his 27th U.S. Open, the most of any player in the field. This event is the only one of the four majors that has eluded him.

“This is certainly one of my favorite courses,” Mickelson said. “It’s the best setup, in my opinion, that we’ve seen, and the reason I say that is all areas of your game are being tested. There are some birdie holes. There’s some really hard pars. There’s some fairways that are easy to hit, fairways that are tough to hit.

“The chipping and short game around the greens are going to be a huge factor this week,” Mickelson added. “The challenge of the greens being extended and all the contours will continue to take balls further from the hole. You end up in fairway and have a shot, albeit a difficult one.”

The 2017 purse was $12 million, with Brooks Koepka, the winner, earning $2.16 million. This year’s total purse and earning breakdown will be released after the event.

Koepka said he sees the challenges at this year’s U.S. Open in the same way he saw it last year at Erin Hills, and that he would play the two courses in a similar fashion.

“The fairways are obviously not as wide, but I think the fairways out here are pretty generous,” Koepka said. “Like Erin Hills, it’s a second shot golf course. That’s how I see it. I feel like you’ve got to position your iron play, put it in the right spots, put it below the hole, things like that.

“And to be honest with you, if it keeps firming up the way it has over the last two days, it could be a little links style too. I could see that. Pitching just short of the green, running up, things like that.”

Among the benefits enjoyed by the U.S. Open winner are: an exemption into this event for the next 10 years; an invitation to the other three majors (the Masters, the Open Championship, and the PGA Championship) for the next five years as well as to the next five Players Championships; and exempt status on the PGA Tour for five years.

The top 10 finishers (and ties) are exempt for the following year’s U.S. Open while the top four finishers (and ties) are invited to next year’s Masters.

Three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods will play in the event for the first time since 2015. He said the course at Shinnecock Hills has changed plenty since 2004.

“From the two times I’ve played it previously, it’s a lot longer,” Woods said. “The fairways seem to be about twice as wide. It’s a very different — very different test, very different look. So many of the trees are gone.

“When I played here in ‘95 and ‘04, you know, we had that six-inch, four- to six-inch high rough right off the greens,” Woods added. “It was a very different type of setup. This is very different. Balls run off much further around these greens, and that gives the players so many different options to choose from. It doesn’t just have to be a high towering shot. We can utilize the ground and have that be an ally.”

Woods hasn’t won a major in 10 years since prevailing in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when he outlasted Rocco Mediate in a famous 91-hole battle.


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