ARDMORE, Pa.— Somewhere along the eighth fairway on Sunday, I looked down at my phone and saw a complaint about how horrible the golf was, with players on almost every hole dropping shots left and right.
These are supposed to be the best players in the world, and it seemed like none of them could do anything to beat Merion Golf Club. That probably made those in charge at the USGA smile, but maybe it shouldn't. Maybe Merion was just too hard for its own good.
Early in the week, the buzz was that Merion could play short and soft, a low-scoring dream and a veritable nightmare for the USGA, which prides itself on being the toughest test in golf year after year.
Four rounds later, with a champion in Justin Rose who finished one over par for the tournament, Merion was indeed the toughest test in golf. It was too tough a test.
I love the U.S. Open. It is without a doubt my favorite tournament of the year, expressly because it's so tough on the players. "Par" should matter in golf, even for the best players in the world. A tough course demands good shot-making and rewards smart, safe play.
Still, there is this prevailing feeling that the USGA needed to resort to gimmicks to keep scores down at Merion. Zach Johnson said the USGA was being manipulative.
Mickelson Speaks Up
Even Phil Mickelson, who repeatedly talked about how much he loved Merion and appreciated the challenge the 18 holes provided, had issues with the setup, specifically on the third hole on Sunday, which he double bogeyed.
After he hit his tee shot on the fourth hole, Mickelson went over to USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, who was walking with the group, and said something to him. It was clear from the exchange that Phil was unhappy with the length and setup of the third hole.
I later asked Mickelson about the exchange and what he thought about the overall setup. He was guarded with his thoughts.
"I thought it was a great setup all week," he said. "I thought that the golf course was fabulous. We had weather and we had some conditions with Sunday pins, it was difficult. But I thought that it was really well done and, you know, it was—I loved having the hard holes be really hard. And I loved having chances on the birdie holes."
He then complained about the third hole three times and the setup of the 14th hole at least once during his brief media availability.
It wasn't just Mickelson or Westwood or Johnson, either. Most of the players had issues with the setup. The pins were in diabolical locations all week, giving players difficult approach shots that left nearly impossible putts with that much slope and speed.
When the elements became a factor, the toughest test became too tough.
The USGA wanted to protect the integrity of Merion, and in doing so they might have taken away from the natural defenses of the course. If the players are upset at how difficult the course is playing, and the viewers at home are upset at how lackluster the play comes off on television with everyone backing up to over-par scores, then who or what really wins by making a course this hard?
The historical integrity of golf?
Ben Hogan never putted on 13.5-speed greens. Granted, the guy also used a 1-iron that was actually made of iron, and the players now are using the equivalent of self-propelled rocket ships to hit the ball. But if the only way to protect a course from today's game is to make the pins less accessible, move the tees back so the players had three par-threes over 225 yards and mow the greens so they play like glass, maybe that isn't the best course for the U.S. Open to use, history be damned.
Better yet, maybe it's OK if the players make a few birdies during the week. Maybe the USGA could have used the front tee on 17 one day to give the players a really good chance to score. Perhaps the 18th hole—which Davis called the "hardest hole we play at any U.S. Open"—could have used the lower tees as well, making the second shot far more accessible onto the difficult green.
Players shouldn’t have to hit fairway woods into three par-threes on the course. That doesn't seem right with greens that fast.
There was no shortage of drama at Merion, but there was a palpable lack of excitement. There were far too few roars around the grounds, and many of those that did come were for big par saves.
There are a lot of people who think the players are just whining, spoiled at the easy nature of many of the PGA Tour courses and ridiculous to suggest the USGA was making a course too hard for them. But it was, truly; the course was set up too hard for this U.S. Open, given the fact that so much wind and rain had changed from what the organizers expected heading into the week.
USGA Chief Responds
I asked the USGA's Davis if he agreed with that prevailing opinion. After a tournament where the winner was over par, did he think that maybe he overprotected the course at Merion?
"I do not, because I don't think we would have done anything differently," said Davis. "We could be standing here right now and, whatever, 12-under could have won. And we would have had the same tee locations, the same rough, same green speeds. We wouldn't have done anything different."
Davis later admitted that if the wind had kicked up all week and the rain hadn't come to soften the greens and fairways, we could be looking at "five, 10 over" par winning the tournament.
"You have to remember," Davis continued, "one of the reasons this was hard is it was windy out there. We had four days of wind. I can't believe...I thought coming into this we would have zero days of wind. In June? In Philadelphia? Usually get hot, humid conditions."
Davis was well aware of the complaints from the players, and he essentially admitted that the third hole was set up poorly after the wind change made the hole much harder than anticipated when they decided to move the tees back. Still, Davis was clear that he felt the course played fairly all week, and with players all playing the same course, they were all dealing with the same elements.
"If we would have had four days of still conditions, plus-one over wouldn't have won," he stated. "I don't know what would have won. So we didn't try to manipulate the scores as some would have it."
There was no 62 or 63 at Merion like many predicted, and the elements had something to do with that. The course did as well, as this wonderful patch of land in the outskirts of Philadelphia played much more difficultly than anyone expected on its own. The course was hard enough. The setup put it over the top.
Clearly, Davis disagreed with the notion that Merion was manipulated into being too hard with a gimmicky setup, and the man is one of the smartest men in the game of golf, so who am I—who are the players—to challenge that.
This time, though, Davis may have outsmarted himself. He certainly outsmarted the players.
All quotes obtained firsthand.