Whaddya Say, USGA – the Players, or the Course?

In anticipating this week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Charlie Rymer recalls his last U.S. Open round there – then wonders whether the story line this week will focus on the players, or the USGA’s extreme course setup. He’s also got his top three choices for hoisting the national championship trophy on Sunday.

By Charlie Rymer

In my estimation, there are three places that get the blood pumping more than any other in the world of golf: St. Andrews, Augusta National, and Pebble Beach. In 1992 I qualified for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach – and because of that week, it is the most special to me.

In the first round, I was 3 under par through seven holes. I striped a 1-iron off the tee at No. 8 and then hit a baby cut 6-iron over the cove to two feet under the hole. All was great with the world. My dad was on the bag for me and as we walked down to the green I asked him if the bag was too heavy. He was beaming from ear to ear and replied, “What bag?”

Things went south from there. I didn’t hit the hole with my birdie putt. Then I plugged it in the greenside bunker at No. 9 and made double. I went on to shoot 1 over that day, but I hit 17 greens in regulation (so I’ve got that going for me)! That was my first trip to Pebble Beach, and even though I missed the cut, I fell in love with it.

Let’s chat about the main stories heading into this week, starting with the story that shouldn’t be a story at all. Stated simply, the USGA is losing the trust of the players. And it’s done so with amateur mistakes made in the setup of U.S. Open venues.

Although it’s officially denied, the problem is that the USGA continues to value even par as a winning score. With the quality and depth of the fields, along with the fact that the game has evolved in a way that produces lower scores due to increased distance and straighter ball flight, the effort to keep winning scores at par requires the USGA to cross the line of fairness and enter absurdity.

Players do not respect a setup where the ball rolls up to the hole, then back to your feet or beyond. Or greens so firm that flush shots are not rewarded. Players certainly expect an extremely difficult test, but that test must be made possible to conquer with talent, preparation, and execution. Something just isn’t right in the classroom when the highest grade on the final exam is a 71.

My hope for this week is that USGA setup mistakes don’t become a story … again. To me, the USGA is out of mulligans. Players have had serious discussions of boycotting the U.S. Open, and a poorly executed week by the USGA at Pebble Beach could heat those discussions up. Who knows where that might lead?

As far as the players go, here are the three I have at the top of my list:

Rory McIlroy comes in off Sunday’s big win at the Canadian Open that included a closing score of 61. He’s been amazingly consistent this year, including a win at THE PLAYERS on a course that really doesn’t fit his eye, or his game. When you win at places you don’t care for, that means you’re pretty good at this game. And I believe when the top players are playing their best golf, Rory McIlroy is the best player.

Dustin Johnson has won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice. He should have also won the 2010 U.S. Open there; it’s a special place for him, and he’s playing solid golf right now. His good buddy, Brooks Koepka, has stolen the majors spotlight from Dustin these past two years. These big dawgs can run, but just remember: the sun don’t shine on the same big dawg all the time. And Dustin Johnson is ready to get out of the shade.

I didn’t like Tiger Woods at Bethpage for the PGA Championship. I thought it was a quick turnaround from The Masters and that he wouldn’t be ready physically and emotionally. Turns out I was right! (It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it. OK. Less focus on me. More on Tiger.)

I believe Tiger has recovered from his historic win at Augusta, and is now hungry for more. Let’s not forget, he won a U.S. Open at Pebble by the ridiculous margin of 15 shots. That seems so ridiculous that I looked it up on the innerwebs just to confirm. That’s right … he won by 15 shots! He understands Pebble Beach and what is required. He’s comfortable on the seaside poa annua greens. The fairway bunkering is spectacular at Pebble in that the positioning of the bunkers has been modernized to challenge today’s players. That works in favor of the very experienced Tiger Woods.

And most important, Pebble Beach rewards precise iron play. These are the smallest greens in golf. Throughout his career, iron play has been the most impressive and consistent part of Tiger’s game. And it will serve him well this week.

Enjoy the U.S. Open! I know I will.