John Huggan: How the west was lost at US Open

Holding the US Open at Chambers Bay was a brave move let down by 'cauliflower' greens and a raw deal for the paying public. Picture: AP Photo
Holding the US Open at Chambers Bay was a brave move let down by 'cauliflower' greens and a raw deal for the paying public. Picture: AP Photo
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Bold move to liven up US Open let down by greens and shoddy treatment of fans

IT is an unfortunate consequence of 21st century golf at the highest level. Today, the leading exponents of the game Scotland gave to the world have never before been further estranged – both economically and emotionally – from the public that ultimately provides the lavish lifestyles they enjoy. Pampered, entitled, spoiled and indulged by the tours on which they routinely pick up five-figure cheques for play that is mediocre at best, it is perhaps not surprising, to quote the immortal Corporal Jones of Dad's Army, that “they don’t like it up 'em Mr Mainwaring”.

Jordan Spieth holds up the trophy after winning the US Open. Picture: AP

Jordan Spieth holds up the trophy after winning the US Open. Picture: AP

So it was that a large part of last week’s US Open at Chambers Bay in Washington State was dominated not by the brilliant play of those high on the leaderboard but by infant-like whining. American Chris Kirk opined that the United States Golf Association should be “ashamed” of what they did to the championship. For every one of the 301 shots he hit, Mr Kirk was paid $70.87. Englishman Ian Poulter called the admittedly dodgy greens “disgraceful” not long after collecting a cheque for $27,272.

And both Henrik Stenson ($64,126 richer) and Rory McIlroy ($235,316) felt the texture of certain vegetables – “broccoli” and “cauliflower” respectively – were appropriately analogous of the less-than-predictable putting surfaces.

Part of the problem during every staging of America’s national championship is the inherent lack of trust and respect felt by the players towards the USGA. For many professionals, the tournament organisers are “amateurs” – and not in a good way. Another part is that many top golfers typically react badly to any course presentations markedly different to those they routinely face each week on, say, the PGA Tour. And yet another is that, well, some pros just like a good moan.

On the other hand, USGA executive director Mike Davis, the man in charge of course set-up at the US Open since 2006, did not emerge with much credit from a championship that at times veered pretty close to nonsensical. Only at the last minute – no doubt fearful of a Shinnecock Hills-type disaster where, in 2004, four-foot putts were finishing up in bunkers – did Davis pull back from the brink. The exciting final day’s play was a direct result of heavy overnight watering and more sensible “hole locations”, to use the USGA’s particular brand of pedantry.

This column is all for making golf more interesting and fun by encouraging the “ground game” that is so often absent from the PGA and European Tours. But there is a fine line between fun and farce. And last week Davis travelled too far down the right road. The combination of goofy greens, firm turf and sometimes-daft pin positions at times diminished the championship to a point where luck was all but everything and skill was close to nought. Too much of a good thing too often threatened to spoil the spectacle.

Which is not to say no other worthwhile talking points emerged from an eventful week. There were plenty:

1 Jimmy Gunn

Perhaps the best feel-good story of the week was the emergence of the 34-year-old Dornoch-native. Currently a regular on the almost anonymous eGolf Gateway Tour in Arizona – where he makes his home – Gunn played 132 holes en route from the obscurity of local qualifying to a cheque for more than $64,000.

No one in the field at Chambers Bay made more birdies than the Scot’s 18. Not Jordan Spieth. Not Dustin Johnson. Not Rory McIlroy. And, over the 36 holes it took for the 14-time major champion to play his way out of the US Open, Gunn out-scored Tiger Woods by 11 shots. Not too shabby and something to tell the grandkids.

2 Tiger and Phil

Speaking of which, it wasn’t a great week for American legends at Chambers Bay. If anything, Woods was even worse than he has been lately. Not for a moment did it seem like the three-time US Open champion would make the cut, his game the now familiar combination of wildness from the tee and ineptitude on and around the greens. It was perhaps appropriate that he should “skitter” a wood shot along the ground on his final hole.

As for Mickelson, a solid beginning – 69 – was soon enough dissipated by increasingly poor play over the next two days. He rallied slightly in the final round, standing on the penultimate tee level par for the day. But a bogey, double-bogey finish that included an air-shot on a chip from heavy rough next to the 18th green summed up a disappointing performance from the man who needs only a US Open title to complete the career Grand Slam.

3 Colin Montgomerie

Like Mickelson, Monty zipped round Chambers Bay in 69 on the opening day. And like Mickelson that was about as good as it got for the 2014 US Senior Open champion. Unusually too, Monty seemed quite realistic about his prospects on a course way too long for a man in his early 50s. By way of illustration, the longest-hitter in the field last week, Australian Adam Scott, averaged 336.9 yards from the tee compared with Monty’s 266.1. Different games. In truth, the 52-year-old Scot did well to make the cut.

4 Jordan Spieth

Truly, this is a remarkable young man. Not only did the now double major champion display maturity far beyond his 21-years in surviving the trauma of that potentially disastrous double-bogey on the penultimate hole, Spieth gave a press conference marked by an amazing assurance in one so young.

Now that the Texan and McIlroy hold all four major titles between them, golf would seem to have the ready-made rivalry that never really emerged during the Woods era, hard as Mickelson and Ernie Els tried to keep up. Now all we need is a head-to-head battle between the best two players in the game at St Andrews next month. It is, with all due respect to everyone else in the upper reaches of the world rankings, an almost irresistible prospect.

5 Dustin Johnson

Where now for the man who is the most physically gifted athlete in golf? Three putts from only a few yards on the 72nd green to lose by a shot is a painful scenario indeed, one that will surely involve some recovery time. Then again, maybe not. Johnson’s biggest problem might also be his biggest asset at such moments. The 30-year-old South Carolinian can be relied upon not to think too deeply about what happened on the last hole a week ago.

6 Spectators at Chambers Bay

Saving the worst for last, it is safe to say the viewing experience on offer was nothing short of disgraceful. And there is no excuse. If the eight-year-old course really was custom-built to hold a major championship, why was there apparently little or no consideration for the paying customers?

It beggars belief that those prepared to give up their time and money to support the event – not much is cheap at the US Open, by the way – were treated so shabbily.

To say punters got a raw deal is a gross understatement. As many as five holes allowed virtually no access to those fans wishing to follow a group from 1st to 18th. And one, the bunker-less par-5 8th, was out of reach not only for shorter-hitters like Monty but any and all spectators.

It has always been easy to accuse the blue-blooded USGA of elitism and this nonsense was a perfect example of an ill-concealed disdain for the ordinary fan. The multi-million dollar, 12-year deal with the Fox Sports television network is all they really seem to care about.

The USGA’s slogan is “for the good of the game”. But “for the good of our bank balance and to hell with the game” would have been more appropriate for a display stunning in its arrogance.