Martin Dempster: Stars to be victims of USGA's silly season

It's that silly week in the golf season. The one where the United States Golf Association seems to go out of its way to try to make the game's leading players look daft rather than letting them showcase their talents to a global audience.

A maze of bunkers at the par-4 second hole at Oakmont Country Club, which hosts this years US Open. Picture: Getty
A maze of bunkers at the par-4 second hole at Oakmont Country Club, which hosts this years US Open. Picture: Getty

The US Open, surely, should be a stage where skill is allowed to shine, not stifled. Yet, time and time again, the USGA, with executive director Mike Davis the chief culprit, apparently, seem intent on it being the focal point of the week rather than the competitors.

In the build up to this week’s event at Oakmont, we’ve heard Phil 
Mickelson, a six-time runner-up in the event, describing it as the “hardest golf course we’ve ever played”.

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Jordan Spieth, the defending champion, said it was “even harder than I expected” after playing a practice round on Sunday, having already been braced for a tough test in the season’s second major when he paid a visit around six weeks ago.

Social media has been awash with warnings about what we can expect to see from Thursday onwards. Last year’s BMW PGA champion Ben An, for example, posted a video of him playing a bunker shot that, for starters, required aiming about 20 feet right of the hole and using a slope to feed it down to the hole.

There’s nothing really out of the ordinary about that, of course. But playing it to perfection – or looking that way, anyway, as the ball seemed as though it was going to stop a foot from the hole – only to be left with a 20-foot putt due to the speed of the greens being ridiculously fast isn’t on, really.

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 winner, also put up a video clip that showed how thick the rough is around the greens. It showed Doug Ferguson, the outstanding Associated Press golf correspondent and a fine player himself, attempting a chip from close to the 17th green yet barely being able to move the ball.

Seriously, are either of those examples what the majority of golf fans want to see in one of the game’s great events? I think not.

By all accounts, Spieth appeared almost downbeat as he gave that assessment at the weekend. That’s certainly not how the young 
Texan normally comes across and the USGA should be ashamed of themselves if they are making Spieth dread his title defence rather than relish it.

That said, of course, Spieth prevailed in last year’s shambolic farce at Chambers Bay, so perhaps he actually likes how the USGA sets up it courses, even though it may appal others and leave viewers squirming as the game’s leading lights are made to suffer what can only be described as golf torture.

There is nothing worse in golf than seeing good shots either being punished or not getting a just reward, as was certainly the case with that aforementioned effort, which was both worked out magnificently and executed brilliantly, by An.

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Over the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to play three of the courses on the R&A’s rota for the Open Championship – Carnoustie, Royal Troon and Turnberry – as well as Castle Stuart, where the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open returns next month, and I can only recall one occasion that I felt as though I’d been on the wrong end of a harsh blow.

It was finding an impossible lie in one of the bunkers which guard the green at the par-5 sixth at 
Castle Stuart, having felt I’d played the best shot I possibly could from sand on the other side of the putting surface. It was just one of those spots you find every now again that bring back memories of that classic Hamlet cigars commercial.

No doubt someone will find that same spot in the Scottish Open, while there is sure to be the odd 
horror story, too, at Royal Troon the following week, then again the week after that at Carnoustie as it plays host to the Senior Open Championship.

Nothing will have been contrived at either of those venues to make the respective tests more difficult, though. By all accounts, Oakmont had teeth aplenty to test the best this week without the USGA once again taking things perilously close to the edge.

What should be a celebration 
of golf could end up damaging 
the sport.