This past weekend, as Brooks Koepka overwhelmed Erin Hills on his way to a three-stroke victory in the U.S. Open, golf obsessives on Twitter debated whether the venue was any good and, more interestingly, whether the tournament could use a new identity. Beneath all of the bellyaching and inexplicable rage, there was actually an engaging discussion.
The complaints about Erin Hills as a tournament track were, to my mind, mostly baseless. Yes, there were a lot of low scores. But there were plenty of high scores as well, an indication that Erin Hills punished bad shots as vigorously as it rewarded good ones. Over at The Fried Egg, Andy Johnson wrote better than I could about how the course uses width to create options and how it honors different styles of play. If you think Erin Hills is “easy” or “Mickey Mouse,” you probably either don’t buy into or don’t understand the strategic school of golf course design. I, for one, enjoyed watching players as dissimilar as Justin Thomas and Brian Harman find their own distinctive ways to shoot under par.
Even in the midst of my enjoyment, however, I couldn’t help asking, Okay, then, so what is a U.S. Open? For all its virtues, Erin Hills is nothing like Oakmont, Baltusrol, or Oakland Hills, all of which have hosted more than five Opens and, for better or for worse, have defined the identity of the tournament. And if the U.S. Open wants to match the charisma and prestige of the Masters and the British Open, it needs an identity.
In recent decades, the USGA has presented the Open as “the toughest test in golf.” This pursuit of difficulty has not only resulted in a number of barely watchable tournaments but has also created annual PR crises for the USGA. The 2015 Open was a fiasco not because Chambers Bay was a bad venue but because the USGA’s attempts to “defend par” rendered the playing surfaces too dry and bumpy. Even last year’s rules scandal involving Dustin Johnson could be traced back to an overzealous course setup: DJ’s ball wouldn’t have moved if the greens weren’t so damn fast.
So if not “the toughest test in golf,” what should the U.S. Open be?
As I proposed on Twitter a few weeks ago, and as Scott Michaux argued in the Augusta Chronicle this past Sunday, the USGA may want to consider establishing a rota of classic American golf courses.
There are plenty of valid objections to this idea. For one, most traditional U.S. Open venues are not just private but you-can-only-play-here-if-you-own-a-yacht private. This is not a great look for an event that takes pride in being, well, open. The fact is, however, that most of the best designs from the Golden Age of golf course architecture in America belong to private clubs, and an excellent track tends to make for an excellent tournament. Besides, the Open itself would remain as accessible as ever to any and all qualifiers.
Another pitfall of a traditional rota would be a likely bias toward the East and West Coasts. Fortunately, the South will always have Pinehurst and the Masters, and given that the PGA Championship will probably move to May by 2020, the southeastern and southwestern states can expect to host plenty of major championships in the future. The Midwest may end up getting the short end of this deal, but as long as the PGA of America keeps going back to Wisconsin and the USGA visits Oakland Hills and Medinah regularly, the heartland may be persuaded not to revolt.
Finally, the USGA will have to combat the perception that classic U.S. Open venues are, as Tony Dear puts it in his rebuttal to Michaux’s article, all about “tree-lined fairways, thick shin-high rough, 20-yard-wide fairways and rock-hard greens.” Yes, that is how the USGA has set up Merion, Oakland Hills, and Winged Foot in the past few decades, but each of those courses is better, more subtle, and more strategic than the Mr. Tough Guy version of the Open has allowed them to be.
So an important caveat to my proposal would be that the USGA step back, stop worrying about par, and allow superintendents at host venues to take the lead in the setup process. Let these masterpieces of Golden Age golf course design speak for themselves, and if the Dustin Johnsons and Rory McIlroys of the world shoot in the 270s, so be it.
The U.S. Open may lose its reputation as the world’s most difficult tournament, and it may miss the freedom to branch out to new venues, but it would gain the character and mystique that it needs to compete with the Masters and the British Open. Also, it would just be a fun tournament to watch.
Here is the classic rota (similar to Michaux’s) that I would like to see the U.S. Open adopt:
Eight venues to be visited once per decade
- Bethpage State Park (Black), A. W. Tillinghast, 1936
- Oakland Hills Country Club (South), Donald Ross, 1918
- Oakmont Country Club, Henry Fownes, 1903
- The Olympic Club (Lake), Willie Watson and Sam Whiting, 1924 and 1927
- Pebble Beach Golf Links, Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, 1919
- Pinehurst Resort (No. 2), Donald Ross, 1907
- Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, C. B. Macdonald/Seth Raynor and William Flynn, 1901 and 1937
- Winged Foot Golf Club (West), A. W. Tillinghast, 1923
Four venues to be visited once every 20 years
- The Country Club (Composite), Willie Campbell and Alex Campbell, 1895 and 1902
- Medinah Country Club (Course 3), Tom Bendelow, 1928
- Merion Golf Club (East), Hugh Wilson, 1912
- Southern Hills Country Club (Championship), Perry Maxwell, 1936
Aficionados of golf course architecture would likely zero in on Olympic and Medinah as the weak links in this rota. Indeed, neither course is on my bucket list. But both have hosted memorable majors (Arnold Palmer’s collapse at Olympic in the 1966 Open; Sergio and Tiger’s battle at Medinah in the 1999 PGA), and both are near big urban areas. Sure, I too would love to see a U.S. Open at Seminole or Prairie Dunes, but I’m trying to create a rota that would work in the real world.
[2018 edit: now that Olympia Fields has hired restoration specialist Keith Foster, I would consider that club’s North Course a better Chicago-area choice than Medinah #3.]
U.S. Open traditionalists may argue for seven-time host Baltusrol, but recently restored Winged Foot and brawny, proletarian Bethpage are more exciting venues, and two New York City-adjacent Tillinghast designs are plenty.
I found it more difficult to leave off the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club, a gorgeous George Thomas track, slated for the 2023 U.S. Open, that has been restored to its former glory by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford. But California already has staple venues in Pebble and Olympic, and LACC has no Open history to speak of.
A welcome side effect of my proposed rota would be that the PGA Championship, which has long suffered from the deepest identity crisis of any major, could find its niche by going to modern designs like the Ocean Course, Whistling Straits, Erin Hills, Chambers Bay, Valhalla, Crooked Stick, Sebonack, and Tobacco Road.
Let me know what you think. Should the U.S. Open go classic? If not, how will the tournament define itself? Or does it need to?