How Shinnecock Hills beat the hell out of the world’s best golfers

The praise of the destruction scattered across the grounds at the U.S. Open will occur for the wrong reasons.

There will be adoring odes that focus on nothing but the high scores. The consensus on Thursday is that “real U.S. Open golf” was back. After watching a birdiefest and a 16-under winning score last year at Erin Hills, there was a thirst for a bloodbath, and Shinnecock Hills obliged from sun-up to sun-down. So it will be romanticized. This is the U.S. Open your parents grew up with, and this is how it should always be.

Thursday’s test at the U.S. Open should be praised simply for being entertaining. Not for nostalgia. And it wasn’t entertaining because it was difficult, but the way it was difficult. The U.S. Open does not need a certain identity to be valuable. It can be many different things and many different kinds of tests. Justin Thomas losing his mind and posting a new scoring record last year at Erin Hills was entertaining to watch, and so was Thursday. Both can be the U.S. Open.

This was appealing in the way that watching a boxer catch a big uppercut is fun to watch but it’s probably not something you’d want to do yourself. It cannot be overstated how perfect a day it was to watch golf. There was not a single cloud until late in the day, the temperature rested below 80, and the wind provided a natural AC — if you got a little toasty, just head to some of the holes on higher ground where the breeze was whipping. The wind was having that affect on the high fescue where it looked like uniform waves rolling onto a shore. It was delightful!

As a fan, the entire atmosphere was peaceful and perfect for watching golf on one of America’s best courses. Then nearby there was Rory McIlroy unable to hit his ball more than three feet out of that fescue. Or slamming an approach shot into the lip of a bunker. Or Jordan Spieth three-putting from four feet. Or Phil Mickelson trying to play a low wedge shot and skulling it through the back of the green. The featured group of the morning became the flag bearers for the “U.S. Open golf is back” movement, going a combined 25-over par in the opening round. Scott Gregory, an extremely accomplished amateur player and a promising pro talent, shot 92. It was the first 90-plus round in 16 years at the U.S. open. The afternoon was not easier.

Slugfests and par golf are not always enjoyable to watch. But Shinnecock forced so many different shot shapes and types that make it fascinating, even if the results sometimes look like your sorry ass hopelessly trying to get around your local course on the weekend.

Shinnecock Hills and Erin Hills are two extremely different courses. One is a Golden Age design hailed by some as the best major championship venue in the country. Another is a newcomer with no history. But both rely on wind as a defense to challenge the absolute best in the world. The wind never came last year and it roared through in a big way on Thursday at Shinnecock.

That’s not to say Erin Hills would have provided that kind of test had it been windy. It’s not in the same class as this venue. Shinnecock may be flawless from start to finish for so many reasons baked into its routing and topography and architectural brilliance. It’s supposed to be played in wind, and that wind and brilliance combined on Thursday to crush the hopes and dreams of the best players in the world from the very start.

The USGA can make any golf course extremely difficult to play if they really want to. It may push the limits of fairness and become a monotonous bore. Thursday’s setup at Shinny was an entertaining brute. It doesn’t have to define how U.S. Open golf should be, but it definitely felt how Shinnecock Hills golf should be.


Some notes on the setup and the test it provided:

  • A debate that recently raged on Twitter and elsewhere among pros, former pros, and general golf nerds focused on how a U.S. Open course should be maintained around the greens. Most of the former pro crowd feel like a U.S. Open should have thick, four and six-inch rough right off the green. The trend from most in the architecture community wants everything chopped down with closely mown green surrounds that sometimes result in a ball rolling 10, 15, and 30 yards away and a next shot with plenty of options for how to play it. We have that at many of the holes at Shinnecock, and it was fantastic to watch throughout the day. Some played through the air. Some ran it up on the ground. Some decided to putt it. There was so much variety and it was definitely not easier than having some gnarly rough just off the green, where there’s only one option: hack out with a wedge and put it up in the air. Tiger Woods tried to putt one onto to the first green, only to have it roll back to his feet. Jordan Spieth tried to throw one with a wedge up on the 11th green, only to have it roll back after he could not race up and mark it in time. It wasn’t just the failures that were fascinating to watch, but the successes too, like Justin Thomas lofting one perfectly to a couple feet from the back of the impossible 10th hole. That came after a low-runner failed to get onto the putting surface. So the wind gave Shinnecock its bite on Thursday, but the most entertaining challenge to watch often came around the green where the gusts were having less (just less, not none!) of an impact on the shot.
  • Another gripe from the former pros who wanted carnage also focused on fairway width. This comes with a full nod to Andy Johnson of the Fried Egg, who has educated us on this for more than a year now. But we saw several times throughout the first round that more fairway does not necessarily mean easy. The 8th hole, fattened out from 28 to 62 yards since the 2004 U.S. Open, presents two totally different options from different sides of the fairway. On Thursday, Phil Mickelson played up the right side and Rory McIlroy played up the left side. Even with a far left pin, Phil had less room on his approach shot, while Rory could see the full green in front of him and had plenty of room to work. Phil went right at the pin and his ball rolled over the back for an eventual bogey.

Phil’s Play

From his angle out on the left, Rory put his safely up the gut of the green for a birdie chance and an easy two-putt par from 20 feet.


Rory’s play.

  • One person who caddied here for several years said he’d never seen the high fescue portions of this rough so thicc. The most high-profile search party occurred with Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, and an army looking for Dustin Johnson’s ball at the 6th hole. But these search efforts occurred repeatedly throughout the day. This isn’t something you want to watch or see every tournament, but it works this week. That’s part of the character of this course. You’re going to get Mickelson asking if there is a rule about not being able to even see your ball when you’re taking a swing. If you have a wild miss or misjudge the rollout on the shot path you take, you’re going to get punished.
  • We didn’t hear too many complaints about the setup from the players, which is something you’d usually get with this kind of leaderboard carnage. But it’s hard to complain at such a renowned and adored venue that played in this extra-challenging way because of wind, not some USGA f**kery. Spieth, however, did wonder about some of the hole locations in a few quick comments before bolting the scene. “There were certainly a few pins that were — I would have said ‘Why didn’t you put them two paces closer’ or whatever … They just, they found a lot of flats on the crests of ridges to where you couldn’t get it close. If you played the right shot and you were hitting it well to the right spot you could make pars. There were a couple of them that were a little dicey.”
  • The USGA took precautions on Wednesday night and freely shared that they were concerned about the winds that were coming for the first round. CEO Mike Davis said they slowed down the greens and were going to change some pin placements. Davis even indicated he thought it was as much late change in a setup plan that he could recall in decades working with this championship. So it’s hard to say anything was unfair. But given the forecast, which calls for continued wind, just from different directions, this is probably the kind of test we’re going to get again on Friday. Enjoy it in the Shinny vacuum, not because it’s “how the U.S. Open should be.”

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