The United States Golf Association chooses and sets up U.S. Open courses in a way it believes will test the resolve of the world’s greatest golfers. It’s supposed to be tough but fair.
This year at Shinnecock Hills, many felt fair was thrown out the window.
Saturday’s third round of the U.S. Open was so hard that even USGA chief executive officer Mike Davis admitted that by the time the winds were blowing in the afternoon the course was too tough.
"There were some aspects of this setup that went too far where well-executed shots weren't awarded but were penalized," said Davis in the aftermath of the carnage left on Long Island.
Shinnecock Hills played like two different golf courses. With Dustin Johnson, the only man to break par after 36 holes (he was 4-under) the USGA put some water on the course overnight and in the early morning. So the players at the back of the field that teed off early had a distinct advantage.
Tony Finau and Daniel Berger both made the cut by one shot and both shot a 66. They’ll play in the final pairing on Sunday. Those who were in the lead and had to tee off later ran into difficulties thanks to Mother Nature.
The winds kicked up, drying out the course and making the greens indescribably slick. Johnson shot a 77. San Diegans Charley Hoffman and Scott Piercy, tied for second place at even par, shot 77 and 79, respectively.
"Frankly, we just missed it with the wind. It blew harder than we thought,” Davis said.
Perhaps the man who was most affected by the conditions was Phil Mickelson. Lefty shot an 81, tying the worst round of his Major championship career. The exclamation point came on the 13th hole.
Mickelson chipped on and through the green, something not common for someone with his deft short game. He missed a putt and realized the ball was starting to roll off the greenback down towards the bunker. So the five-time Major winner and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame ran over to the ball and hit it while it was still rolling.
According to golf rules, this is a two-shot penalty. According to golf etiquette, this is the equivalent of picking your nose then trying to shake the hand of the Queen of England. While people on social media (and in the regular media) started eviscerating Mickelson and calling for him to be disqualified, he explained his decision thusly:
“I don’t mean disrespect by anybody. I know it’s a two-shot penalty and at that time I just didn’t feel like going back and forth and hitting the same shot. I took the penalty and moved on," he said. "It’s my understanding of the rules. I’ve had multiple times where I’ve wanted to do that I just finally did. It’s meant to take advantage of the rules the best that you can and in that situation, I was just going back and forth and I would gladly take the two shots over continuing that display.”
His explanation seems to make sense.
Given the way the course was punishing players Mickelson decided taking the penalty and a 10 on the par-4 was a better bet than trying to figure out what on earth was going on and perhaps having an even more inflated score.
Davis said he talked to Mickelson, who was concerned that his understanding of the rules was incorrect and told Davis to DQ him if that was the case. Davis said no, there is no grounds for a disqualification, only the two-shot penalty.
Mickelson is certainly not the only one was visibly frustrated with Shinnecock Hills on Saturday. Zach Johnson, a two-time Major winner and a guy who is not known for rocking many boats, even said the USGA has “lost the golf course.”
Davis said USGA understands the problem it allowed to take root and believes fans will not see the same kind of destruction on Sunday.
"We are very confident we can slow the course down," he said.
If they can't, or choose not to, it's likely that fans will see one of the highest scores for a U.S. Open champ in history, as well as many players as upset as Mickelson.
Maybe even the one holding the trophy.