In life, few things are constant. In professional sports, change is inevitable. And golf is no exception. In the game of golf, economic factors strongly affect the ebbs and flows of it’s growth and participation rates; while advancements in metals and composite materials make last year’s breakthrough and must-have equipment obsolete before you can say “Peter Persons”. Corporate sponsorships wax and wane and the tournament schedule shifts accordingly.
But there are two maxims you can live by (okay, make it three**). First is that The Masters will be played the first full weekend in April. As long as the ghost of Hootie Johnson haunts Amen Corner, Augusta will host the best golf tournament at the same time. Every. Damn. Year.
The second is that the US Open will be held the third weekend in June every year... coinciding nicely with Father’s Day. And 2018 proves that true, as the 118th United States Open Championship will be competed June 14-17th.
This year has some interesting storylines:
- Justin Thomas recently overtook Dustin Johnson as world #1 (and Dustin took it right back with a win this past Sunday). Multiple players have a chance to be world #1 this week with a victory.
- Will Rickie Fowler ever win a major?
- Has Justin Rose returned to form in time to win his second Open title?
- Did Jordan Spieth fix his balky putter, likely the only thing holding him back from the winner’s circle this season?
- After famously skipping the 2017 US Open to attend his daughter’s high school graduation, will 6-time runner-up Phil Mickelson finally complete the career grand slam?
- Will 2017 winner Brooks Koepka be at full strength and health to defend his title? His form the last couple of weeks make the Sam linebacker/pro golfer tough to bet against.
- And oh yeah... a little matter of a fairly resurgent Tiger Woods returning, and 10 years since his last major title at the 2008 US Open.
To me, none of those compare to the biggest shadow looming over Long Island Sound... Shinnecock Hills Golf Course.
Shinnecock is the oldest incorporated golf club in the United States (various disputes about the oldest golf course, but this is the oldest incorporated golf club), founded in 1891. It has always been regarded as one of the top courses in the States, if not the world. Long, low, and mean, it somewhat resembles Links-style courses of England and Scotland. You still have to play the ball through the air, and not on the ground like true links-style, but it has a similar look. It held the second US Open ever competed, but the Open didn’t return here until 1986, where it was won by Raymond Floyd. At the 100th edition of the Open, the United States Golf Association (which is basically the golfing rules-making body in the US and hosts various national championships) returned to Shinnecock in 1995, famously captured by a wee man with a big moustache (Corey Pavin). Then 2004 happened.
Possibly more accurate, 2003 happened. The US Open at Olympia Fields was won by Jim Furyk at a score of 8 under par. The USGA has famously stated that they will “defend par” by course conditions - making fairways thinner, rough thicker, and greens harder. This makes it difficult for even the best players in the world to shoot even par, though some inevitably do. And a winning score of 8 under created a collective narrative of “oooooo - just wait until 2004. The USGA will punish everyone.” And they did.
Even with some rain during Friday’s second round at Shinnecock in 2004, the USGA rolled and shaved the greens with extra vigor. The winds picked up and the course dried out quickly. So much so, that Saturday took half the field out of contention and Sunday played darn near impossible. For instance, the first two players to reach the 7th green on Sunday scored triple-bogeys each. The next two players carded a triple and a double-bogey. The ball simply would not come to rest, especially near the hole, no matter the spin or touch or skill involved. Mowing, rolling, winds, and no water combined to make it unplayable. Only one player shot par on the course that day, with everyone else over par.
Anyone care to guess what last year’s (2017) US Open winning score was? 16 under par. With 31 golfers finishing under par in total. Ruh-roh, Shaggy.
The USGA still has mud on it’s face from that debacle, and as such is under a microscope this week. And it turns out, they’ve actually spent time and money to make Shinnecock tighter. Some course renovations over the past couple of years enlarged the greens (some by up to 60-70%) and they’ve narrowed the fairways. Luckily, the spring and early summer have been wet here and of course the USGA has been monitoring ground conditions for a while. But it will be interesting to see how well Shinnecock shines in this toughest of golf spotlights.
Now on to the former Georgia Bulldogs who are qualified for this oldest golf tournament in the United States:
Brian Harman. The other lefty from UGA, Harman didn’t fare well at his first two US Opens, missing the cut in each. But he came back strong in his 3rd try, falling just short but securing a tie for 2nd last year at the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills.
Russell Henley. The US Open is tough, and Henley has probably done better than most, having missed only 2 cuts in 6 attempts. This will be his first Father’s Day as an actual Dad, so maybe that gives him the motivation he needs.
Kevin Kisner. The Kiz has played in the last 4 editions of the Open, only missing 1 cut. But with finishes of T-49 and T-58 the last 2 years, it doesn’t seem to be his cup of tea. Still, he’s the #30 ranked player in the world with 6 top 25s this season and 3 top 10s. Never count him out.
Bubba Watson. To say this is Bubba’s kind of golf would be... misleading. His first US Open was here in 2004 where he missed the cut. He does own a T-5 at Oakmont in 2007, but has missed the cut in 6 of his US Opens, and only one other top 20. But Bubba also has two wins this year (Genesis and WGC Dell Technologies), so maybe this is his year.
Perhaps the good news in all of this doom and gloom is that if you don’t like to hear Johnny Miller criticize and second-guess every player on the planet from behind his NBC microphone, you don’t have to! Fox (I know, right?!) actually has the broadcast rights to the US Open, and will throw Jim Buck’s sultry assertions through your speakers. So you’ve got that going for you, which is...
There’s your primer on the toughest golf tournament on the planet and the ‘Dawgs who will put peg to ground in hopes of capturing this trophy for the first time in program history.
And as always...
**The third is never get involved in a land war in Asia. But you knew that one already.