- As more players trend toward longer drives, the USGA extended the course at Shinnecock 444 yards, with almost 100 of those on the unforgiving 14th.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Jim Furyk thought he was prepared for this year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He played in this event the last time it was held at this course, in 2004, and he had kept meticulous notes. Then he got here.
“I realized after one [practice] round that nothing held up,” he said. “The fairways are a totally different width, so the places that I feel that we’re driving the ball now are different areas. Some tee boxes moved 30, 40 yards—70 on a couple holes—and then the green complexes have changed, so almost every note I had written in that old book is kind of worthless, to be honest with you.”
Golfers who complain about the difficulty of this year’s U.S. Open course—so, most of them—have only themselves and technology to blame. They combine to hit it too far for the USGA’s liking. Open leader Dustin Johnson hit a 489-yard bomb at the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship in March, an extreme example of a clear trend. If the USGA staged the Open on the same course it had used in 1896 or 1986 or ’95 or even 2004, we would be treated to a flock of birdies. So it lengthened the course at Shinnecock 444 yards, from 6,996 to 7,440. Almost 100 of those came on one hole: the dreaded 14th.
“It’s definitely the hardest hole on the course, for sure,” said Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell.
McDowell bogeyed the par-4 No. 14 on Thursday and made par Friday, which might make some of the other golfers jealous. (McDowell missed the cut by a stroke anyway.) Dean Burmester has played Shinnecock’s other 17 holes in three over par, but he is five over on No. 14. Webb Simpson knocked his tee shot into the right rough on Thursday and needed three tries to get out of it; the first two combined for 15 yards before Simpson finally found the fairway and eventually accepted double bogey.
The 14th hole here is perhaps the most picturesque of all. It is located atop the highest of Shinnecock’s eponymous hills, giving golfers a beautiful view of trees and fescue and hospitality tents to enjoy while a breeze tickles their faces. Of course, the golfers themselves frame this delightful image differently: You are playing golf unprotected on top of a mountain from which you cannot see your green and can barely see your fairway as you try to aim at the sliver of ground that will not send your ball scooting into a crowd or three feet of underbrush, all while being pummeled by a headwind.
Players averaged a score of 4.81 on 14 on Thursday. It was the worst score on the course relative to par in the first round. Golfers hit just 57% of their fairways and 26% of their greens in regulation. A hole that ranked ninth in difficulty in 1986, 11th in ’95 and sixth in 2004 is now a solid No. 1.
Asked to explain the challenge, players say it’s simple: the tee, the fairway, the rough and the pin. The left-to-right headwind they faced the first two days forced them to aim almost for a hospitality tent and cut their drives back into the fairway. Did that work? “No,” said Brandt Snedeker, who made a double bogey Thursday and par Friday. “We’re trying to line up way left to give the ball room to move, but if you hit it solid it goes through the wind, and if you mishit it at all it gets blown the other way!” The fairway ends up playing “effectively half the width it really is,” said Adam Scott, who also double bogeyed Thursday and made par Friday.
Even the USGA was a bit taken aback by the strength of the west-northwest wind that buffeted Thursday. “It was designed for the prevailing southwest wind, which would be a helping breeze,” Jeff Hall, the senior managing director of rules and open championships, explained over email.
Even if players avoid the tents off the tee, they are surrounded by nearly impenetrable rough, where it’s hard to advance the ball more than 100 yards in one shot—if they can find their ball. Mickey DeMorat took a two-stroke penalty after he lost a ball in the fescue there and accidentally played someone else’s.
The approach can be as long as 240 yards uphill, still into the wind—and Friday, the pin was front-left and guarded by more fescue. Many players had to hit 3-woods into the green, with no chance to stop the ball anywhere near the pin.
But the real problem, players say, is the hole’s designation. The USGA calls it a 519-yard par-4.
“It’s playing like a tough par-5, to be honest,” said Scott.
“It’s just a brutal par-4,” said Snedeker. “I played it like a par-5, pretty much. I made birdie!”
“It’s a par-5, is what it is,” said Tony Finau, who made double bogey on Thursday and par on Friday. “If it were a par-5, it’d probably play over par still.”
“It’s a four-and-a-half-er,” said McDowell. “They haven’t been shy with the pin positions the last couple of days. I don’t know what they’re looking for, but I hope they’ve got it.”
The USGA has been hearing for years from players tired of “getting U.S. Opened,” as they put it, that no one wants to watch a bunch of elites embarrass themselves. In 1974, the USGA competition committee’s Sandy Tatum provided the organization’s response, forever: “We’re not trying to humiliate the best players in the world. We’re simply trying to identify who they are.”
The USGA has identified Matt Parziale, a 31-year-old amateur who schedules trips to the driving range around trips driving in a fire truck for Ladder Company 1 of the Brockton, Mass., fire department. He birdied 14 on Thursday and saved par there on Friday. He made the cut. So Matt, why didn’t the hole strike fear into your heart as it did for so many others?
He laughed. “They’re all intimidating,” he said.
Anyway, this may be moot soon. “The wind’s gonna switch and it’s gonna be a different hole,” said Furyk. “Something else will become the toughest hole.” That will serve as little comfort to the golfers flying home Friday night, cursing unlucky No. 14.