TIME was, of course, when the US Open was the most utterly predictable event in golf. Following a warped, tedious and often-sadistic doctrine, the blue-blooded, Roman numeral-laden and oh-so entitled United States Golf Association annually presented the heavily-disguised host venue in a manner designed to achieve two things: 1) the total elimination of flair, imagination and excitement and 2) the identification of a plodder whose idea of fun was a regulation figure on every hole.
Happily, things have moved on, albeit remnants of the old regime remain. Misguided souls who pride themselves on making the “National Open” the “toughest” event in golf have clearly retained some influence. Even as the USGA’s chief executive, Mike Davis, has introduced innovations such as graduated rough – this week at Chambers Bay we might see sloping tees and holes that are par-4s one day, par-5s the next – the mystifyingly pedantic desire to have level par be the winning score lives on.
As recently as 2006 at Winged Foot, Geoff Ogilvy emerged from a final day of carnage with a winning score of five over par. Not once did the Australian break 70.
The following year at Oakmont was even more disappointing, the course all but ruined by a proliferation of cloying rough. Any semblance of strategic thought or the creation of imaginative angles into what might be the most interesting green complexes in the game was eliminated. It was a golfing tragedy, especially for those who wish to see the best players presented with a canvas on which they can both entertain and display their full range of talents.
And two years ago on a course yet again all but smothered in long grass, Justin Rose won with 281, one over par. Sadly, the “real” Merion was nowhere to be seen.
So even the storied Mr Davis – who increasingly seems to believe in his own omniscience when it comes to course set-ups – is not completely immune to the mind-numbing temptations of his predecessors.
On the other hand, some credit is due. Twelve months ago the US Open was played at Pinehurst No.2, a course almost devoid of rough. As a result, a world-class player performing at the top of his game was able to shoot nine under par for 72 holes. And next morning, despite the fears of the USGA, the sun still rose in the east. Bravo Martin Kaymer.
Which brings us to Chambers Bay. For the first time in its history, the US Open is travelling to Washington State, to a course that is but eight summers old. And, if some advance scouting reports prove accurate, to the first US Open that will be more “British” than American.
Maybe not though. In this observer’s experience, any and every American course claiming to be “links-like” tends to be nothing of the sort. Still, the humps and bumps of Chambers Bay look the part and could, in the right light, conceivably be located somewhere on the Caledonian coastline. But appearing Scottish and playing Scottish are different things.
“It’s a tricked-up links course,” says world No.5 Henrik Stenson, who has visited Chambers Bay. “It’s got some high elevations, five or six holes that we don’t normally see on a regular links, and then some severity. It’s going to be different and quite tricky in places.
“A lot of what goes on will be down to the weather. If the wind blows and you add a bit of rain, you really don’t want to be standing on a 240-yard par 3 looking down on a postage-stamp green. Any major championship is a test of patience and mental strength and I don’t expect this one to be any different.”
OK, time out. Let’s assume for now the pre-match publicity is close to correct. If so, we have in prospect a mouth-wateringly diverse challenge for a group of players largely unfamiliar with anything outside the one-dimensional PGA Tour bubble. Two weeks ago during the Irish Open at Royal County Down – one of the game’s premier links – Ulster-born Graeme McDowell made an astonishing and depressing admission.
“I grew up on this stuff [links golf] but playing the type of golf we do for the last five, ten years I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know how to play this any more,” said the 2010 US Open champion. “You lose the creativity and the art form that is playing golf in the wind. It’s been great to come here and realise I don’t have the skill set I used to have and that I might want to get it back if I want to win the Open Championship.”
Or this US Open. Already Davis and course designer Robert Trent Jones junior have been talking up the challenge presented by Chambers Bay, a lay-out boasting only a single tree.
“When a ball lands, it won’t be clear when or where it’s going to stop,” Jones told Golf Digest. “The idea is to force players to hit away from the flagstick to end up near the flagstick. The older I get [he is 75], the more I like the ground game.”
“There’s very little chance we’ll water the fairways at all during the US Open,” Davis revealed to the magazine. “We’ll watch the putting-green firmness and water there if needed. We’re not focused on colour. We want it bouncy. It can be bouncy and green or bouncy and tan; we don’t care.”
The most notorious of Davis’s pre-championship utterances was his contention that “if anyone thinks they can learn this course in three practice rounds they are crazy”. Coming from a mere six-handicapper, this bold assertion did not go down at all well with at least a few of the cosseted wee souls populating the PGA Tour. No surprise there. Some do a better job of hiding their disdain than others, but, generally speaking, the USGA does not have many fans amongst golf’s elite practitioners. Something to do with too many years of overly-narrow fairways, overly-long rough, silly-fast greens and diabolical pin positions, one supposes.
Still, some have taken Davis’s unsolicited advice to heart. Both Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods visited Chambers Bay last week. Woods reportedly took seven hours to complete one practice round. Although given the current state of his game, much of that inordinate time is more than likely to have been spent fruitlessly searching for wayward tee-shots. “Course knowledge is going to be a big part of this championship,” confirms Mickelson, six-times a US Open runner-up. “It’s important to know the proper shot to play and what the best way to make par is on a lot of the holes. There are a lot of subtleties and nuances. It’s going to be like an Open Championship in that there are a lot of different ways to play certain holes.”
All of which sounds a lot more positive than the typically glib comment attributed to Ian Poulter. “The reports back are that it’s a complete farce,” said the colourful Englishman, quoting unnamed sources. But let’s hope not. If nothing else, the second-biggest championship in golf deserves to be much more than an unseemly descent into slapstick. Better get it right Mr Davis.