It was a controversial Saturday at Shinnecock Hills. It included five-time major champion Phil Mickelson admittedly breaking the rules of golf for his own advantage and ended with the USGA admitting to losing control of Shinnecock Hills, again. The dust settled with Daniel Berger and Tony Finau in Sunday's final pairing at the U.S. Open despite starting the day 11 shots out of the lead.
On his birthday...
Phil turned 48 on Saturday and added an odd turn to his legacy as one of this generation's greatest players. Four-over on the day, Mickelson lost his cool on the 13th green after badly missing a bogey putt. The ball was on its way off the green and down one of Shinnecock's steep false fronts when Mickelson ran to the ball and hit it back towards the hole.
Mickelson then putted out for a quadruple-bogey 8. After a two-stroke penalty for hitting the moving ball, Phil headed to 14 with a sextouple-bogey 10. It was one of the most shocking moments in golf in the past decade and will likely leave a small blemish on Mickelson's legacy. After the round, Mickelson admitted to running to stop the ball from rolling down the hill knowing the two-shot penalty would save him shots. Many analysts and fans thought Phil should have been disqualified or withdraw himself. It's hard to imagine that a less-decorated player having done the same thing would be playing Sunday.
What happened on and to the course...
The golf course yielded early morning scoring opportunities, and Daniel Berger and Tony Finau pounced. Each shot 4-under 66's to vault up the leaderboard, but no one expected they would end the day tied with Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson for the lead.
The wind picked up in the afternoon, and Shinnecock showed one of its best traits (or worst for the USGA), the ability to dry out. It led to afternoon carnage. After two rounds of near perfection, Dustin Johnson shot 77, and his playing partner Scott Piercy shot 79. Rickie Fowler shot 84 to go from t9th to t64th. There was some remarkable play; despite a dismal day with his irons where he hit only six greens, Justin Rose managed a 73. After a 73 of his own, Zach Johnson remarked that the USGA "lost the course". Which sent the internet into an uproar.
For the majority of the final round, it was on the correct side of the line. Great shots were rewarded and average shots punished. Towards the end of the round, the course turned thanks to a few devilish hole locations on the back 9 that didn't allow good shots to be rewarded.
It was the absolute nightmare situation for the USGA, who famously lost the course the last time the U.S. Open was played at Shinnecock in 2004. Following the round, USGA CEO Mike Davis announced the course would be slowed down for tomorrow's final round.
The leaders caught the wrong end of the draw, and due to course conditions, it played nearly three shots harder than the early tee times. The top 20 players on the leaderboard heading into the day played Saturday in 133-over par. They got the short end of the stick. With all that said, the course played a full shot easier than Thursday's round, which received universal praise.
The bigger picture...
The line of "fair" and "unfair" is a tight one to walk. Last year's U.S. Open at Erin Hills got torn to shreds for being too easy. The weather in Wisconsin worked against the USGA. The wind didn't blow, and rain softened the setup leading to low numbers and mass dismay.
One year later, and the course is "too hard" for the masses. The USGA has been put in a difficult position. It has had to try to maintain the championship's identity as the toughest test in golf while technology has allowed golfers to reach never-seen-before heights. Yesterday might have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Golf courses cannot continue to doctor their set-up to protect par. It destroys the golf course’s original intent and pushes the course to the brink in order to combat technology. The USGA made its bed when it failed to regulate technology in the 2000s. Now it faces a grave situation. It can build a bunch of new championship stadiums, or they can change the equipment for the professional game. One seems far more cost effective and logical than the other.
Tomorrow will be softer and slower, Mike Davis has said this much. Shinnecock will still present a stiff test because it's a great golf course. It will require great shots to score, and we will see red numbers. It will be a great end to a memorable and dramatic U.S. Open at the country's finest venue. It may also be the last U.S. Open where the USGA attempts to protect par in an era where modern equipment has altered the game.
To slow it down…
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