There is no evidence to support this, but I refuse to believe it is merely a coincidence that Mike Davis is ceding control of the U.S. Open course setup to John Bodenhamer in the same year the USGA heads to its crown jewel at Pebble Beach.
Since Davis took over in 2005, there has seemingly been criticism of the course setup every year. Whether that’s unfounded depends on how you view both the USGA itself and the players it governs at its biggest championship. What’s unquestionable is that the last five years have been a public relations nightmare.
While the USGA has been treated unfairly in a lot of instances and almost never gets the benefit of the doubt, it is also worth understanding where players like this anonymous former U.S. Open winner (as quoted in Golf Digest) are coming from: “They publicly say they aren’t trying to chase a score, but it’s pretty obvious that they are.”
The problems are manifold, but the crux is that as players get stronger and longer — and the USGA wants to go back to its classics — the reality of defending par means you have to turn the greens all the way up and let the carnage unfurl.
“When we played [the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach] in 2010, the poa annua was soft, spongy, we had all kinds of holes and cleat marks,” said Phil Mickelson last week. “At the speeds they were at, it was impossible to try to putt. It was putting like a waffle iron.”
You heard much of the same criticism last year at Shinnecock Hills.
It’s not the only identity crisis the USGA is facing. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy both recently noted that the Open on this side of the pond is trying to be like the one on the other side.
“Now, I thought it was just narrow fairways, hit it in the fairway or hack out, move on,” said Woods at the Memorial Tournament last weekend. “Now there’s chipping areas around the greens. There’s less rough — graduated rough. They try to make The Open, different and strategically different. I just like it when there’s high rough and narrow fairways, and, ‘Go get it, boys.'”
Noted McIlroy: “It was tight fairways; it was thick rough. It was a premium on accuracy and precision. And I think some of the golf courses we played and some of the setups over the last couple of years have gone a little bit away from that. We play one Open championship a year. We don’t need to play two. I think it’s just lost its identity in terms of what it is, and I’d like to see them go back to that because it worked. It really worked.”
Who knows how far back you need to go to get to what McIlroy is talking about. Mickelson said he’s never played a proper U.S. Open … except when it rained.
“I’ve played, what, 29 U.S. Opens?” said Mickelson. “One hundred percent of the time they have messed it up if it doesn’t rain. The rain is the governor. That’s the only governor they have. And if they don’t have a governor, they don’t know how to control themselves.”
Here’s where Bodenhamer comes in. The winning score at Pebble Beach in six U.S. Opens has only been over par one time. Nobody thinks those U.S. Opens were bad. One of them — the event Tiger won at 12 under — was one of the great majors in golf history.
Bodenhamer can ease off the accelerator just a hair and provide a really good setup. The powers that be can realign.
He can’t control player perception, of course, but it should help that somebody new is in charge. Mike Davis got behind the eight ball and couldn’t get out from that position. Maybe — hopefully? — the benefit of the doubt will be given over the next few weeks.
It’s a prime opportunity for what has been a pretty hostile public relationship to experience some healing. It might not go like that — it probably won’t! — but as of now, we can at least hope it does.
“They’re trying to do as good a job as they can,” said McIlroy of the USGA. “And I think they’ll admit they’ve made a couple of mistakes over the last couple of years. Everyone does. And I think we should give them the chance to redeem themselves. If they can’t redeem themselves at Pebble Beach, then there could be a problem.”