John Huggan: Hay! That’s not fair

PERHAPS the most striking aspect of last week’s US Open was the obvious level of discomfort being felt by the vast majority of the competitors.

Sergio Garcia hacks out of the extremely long grass at Merion. Picture: Getty
Sergio Garcia hacks out of the extremely long grass at Merion. Picture: Getty
Sergio Garcia hacks out of the extremely long grass at Merion. Picture: Getty

It has ever been thus in America’s national championship but this year the moans and groans seemed even more pronounced than usual.

It would be nice to imagine that all the grousing was reflective of collective disappointment at the boring, one-dimensional way in which Merion, one of the world’s most varied and interesting layouts, was presented. But that is perhaps asking too much of a group notoriously lacking in either introspection or, all too often, self-awareness. More likely, the high volume whining had more to do with the game’s best suddenly finding themselves being tested in ways far outside their typically cosseted comfort zone.

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On one hand, it is difficult not to feel a great deal of sympathy for those who see golf US Open-style as pathetically lacking in any kind of strategic thinking and all but devoid of imagination or flair. Then again, once a year, there is certainly a kind of delicious fascination to be found in watching how the leading practitioners cope with an examination paper that contrasts almost completely with those they face week-to-week on the PGA Tour.

By way of example, Tiger Woods tops the “scoring” statistical category on the PGA Tour this year with an average of 69.082. The world No.1 is also the leading money-winner, having found 62.28 per cent of fairways from the tee and hit 67.19 per cent of the greens in regulation figures. At Merion, en route to a tie for 32nd place, Woods’ scoring average rose to 73.25, even though he hit more fairways than usual (70 per cent) and just about the same number of greens (65 per cent). In other words, the game that has produced four victories and earned $5,909,742 in only nine events on the 2013 PGA Tour clearly doesn’t work so well in US Open conditions.

That fact, no doubt, went down well with the United States Golf Association. Almost immediately after watching every player in the 156-strong field shoot over par, executive director Mike Davis was hailing the championship as “wonderful”. The sub-7,000-yard Merion had “stood the test of time”, “held its own” and was “a wonderful test of golf”.

“It was never a question of ‘would the golf course stand up?’” continued Davis. “When we had the 2005 US Amateur here, the stroke play average was second hardest next to Oakmont (almost universally regarded as the most difficult course in America). So we have known all along this course was going to hold its own.”

Davis can be believed on that last point. But there is at least a modicum of disingenuousness in his assertion that the field played Merion as (immigrant Scot) Hugh Wilson, the original architect, wanted it to be played. Following the doctrine that there is nothing easier than making a golf course difficult, Davis all but smothered one of the game’s iconic designs in long grass.

On hole after hole, highly skilled golfers were forced to hit their second shots from the spots the USGA wanted them to hit from. It is hard to think of even one hole where the players were allowed to participate in that decision-making process. They may have wanted to create more favourable angles into those wonderful putting surfaces, but they were never allowed to. Time after time, the ideal spot for the tee-shot was covered in rough, from where the only shot available was the mindless hack-out. Every player, of whatever ability, was thus reduced to the same hapless level.

As renowned course designer, Tom Simpson (Fontainebleau, Morfontaine, Cruden Bay, The Berkshire) once said: “The centre of the fairway should never be the ideal place to drive your ball.” But at Merion last week, it was the only place.

Depressingly, such a scenario may be the only way a so-called “short” course can be protected from the “bomb and gouge” generation spawned by a ball that flies too far and drivers with heads the size of frying pans. In that respect, the USGA was more than successful. Few players were using the longest club in their bags more than a handful of times. At least one, eventual runner-up Phil Mickelson, didn’t even bother to carry a driver.

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All of which goes a long way towards refuting another proud USGA boast – “our aim is to test every club in the bag”. Ironically, the one place on the final day where most players were forced to hit a driver from the tee was at the “par-3” third hole. Some, in fact, were unable to reach the distant putting surface into a stiff breeze, on a hole where there was no “lay-up” spot. Balls finished on the green (rarely), in a bunker, or, most likely, covered in the USGA’s beloved penal rough. Par may just be a number on a card, but this was more than a little silly and unfair.

Not surprisingly, given the length of the grass and the sometimes borderline-daft speed of the putting surfaces, pace of play was an issue over the four days. Even with thousands of “spotters” roaming the premises, finding even slightly wayward shots took time, a fact that only made poking fun at the USGA’s much-ballyhooed slow play initiative, “While We’re Young”, that much easier.

While there is, of course, a vast difference between competitive golf and social play, the USGA appear to want it both ways when it comes to this perennially contentious issue. As Joe Goode, managing director of communications, said via e-mail last week: “A US Open’s purpose is to identify the best player under the most difficult of circumstances. Conversely, the recreational game is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.”

From which it is impossible not to conclude that the US Open is neither of those things.

Still, some good things did happen last week. To the puzzlement of nearly every American, England has its first major winner in 17 years, the same man who is the first golfer from Great Britain to lift one of golf’s four biggest titles in this century and also the third US Open champion to hail from the United Kingdom in the last four years.

And a fine champion he is. In Justin Rose, golf has a man who sets a great example to every youngster wishing to play the game. Unfailingly polite and thoughtful, the 32-year-old is a fine spokesman for a sport scarred by the recent example of the churlish Woods.

He’s not a bad player either. He may have begun his professional career by missing an extraordinary 21 cuts in succession, but Rose has matured into one of the game’s finest ball-strikers. His magnificent approach to the 72nd green will linger long in the memory and, less positively, serve as one last condemnation of the USGA’s warped philosophy on how golf at the highest level should be played.

Rose’s shot, widely hailed as one of the ten best ever struck in such high-pressure circumstances, may have missed the flagstick by mere inches but the ball also finished off the putting surface. It deserved better. A lot better.

And so did Merion.