- Shinnecock’s reputation was already polarizing among golfers. The conditions on Saturday didn’t help that.
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Standing on the 15th fairway Saturday evening, Jim Furyk looked on as Pat Perez, playing in the group ahead, putted his ball from the back of the same hole’s green. It shot up an incline—and then jetted right back down again, resting just a few feet from where it had sat last.
The 15th pin at Shinnecock on Saturday sat at the top of a slope on the right side of the green; on a course with a tad more moisture and a shade calmer winds, it would have been downright difficult. On a dried-out course with 15- to 20-mph. winds, it was a downright impossible pin to hit. “It's perched,” Furyk described the pin after turning in a 72 on the U.S. Open’s most difficult day so far. “The green's gotten very firm. It's gotten crusty, bumpy up there. Anything that gets past that hole just (is gone).”
Brooks Koepka put the hole that was Saturday’s bete noire more simply: “I don’t have anything nice to say about that green and the pin location, so I’m just not going to say it.”
A few moments after Perez double-bogeyed, it was Furyk’s chance to figure out a hole on which 33 players posted a 5 or worse Saturday, on a course so dry and windy it sent every player’s total score over par for the tournament. His decision: A whack of a putt that was destined to pass the hole no matter what. “You bet your ass I hit it over that green intentionally,” Furyk said, laughing at the absurdity that was Shinnecock’s afternoon back nine. The veteran had played it conservative: There was no chance he’d hole it on his third shot, so he settled for a stroke that would get his ball up the slope and into a playable spot for a par. (In the end, he’d miss a short putt and bogey.)
On a day when the USGA was criticized for a course that by late afternoon bordered on unplayable, Furyk was a dose of calm among a sea of frustrated golfers. After receiving a special exemption to qualify for the Open, he shot two over on Saturday, a score that tied Koepka’s for the lowest of any player who teed off after 12:30 p.m. That’s when things devolved in the Hamptons, when the winds began to gust and the greens sapped up any moisture they might have retained from Friday’s rain and pre-round watering. “I can’t believe how much firmer it is from yesterday when I finished to now,” Justin Thomas, who shot 74, said. “It’s literally like a totally different golf course.”
Literally, no; we were still in the Hamptons, and to the untrained eye, the greens looked no different. But figuratively, the course had gone to hell. It was clear the minute a ball struck the too-dry ground and kept rolling, rolling, rolling, please stop rolling sometime soon. The leaderboard going into the final round bears out Thomas’s conclusion. Two players, Daniel Berger and Tony Finau, who teed off at 10:13 a.m. and 10:57 a.m., respectively, shot four under par. They both started the day at seven over, 11 shots off Dustin Johnson’s mark. Now, they’re tied with Johnson and Koepka—who each teed off after 2:30 p.m.—for the lead. And there’s no disparaging what Berger and Finau did; both shot fine rounds of golf on a difficult course. “Let’s put it this way,” Koepka said. “If they’d have shot four under this afternoon, it would probably have been the best round of golf anybody’s ever seen.”
Rickie Fowler went so far as to admit he might have wished in retrospect that he’d scored worse on Thursday and Friday. He entered Saturday at two over par before shooting the worst round of anyone, an 84. Had he made the cut at five or six over, he suggested, he’d have gotten an earlier tee time, better conditions—and maybe a realistic shot in a tournament that now looks totally out of reach.
One of the players Fowler would probably trade places with in a blink, Berger, sensed a change before the last groups even stepped foot on the course Saturday. He told reporters after his round that even he could see a shift on the back nine by the time he got there: higher winds, firmer and faster surfaces. But his prediction only touched the surface of greens players characterized as glassy, firm, unplayable; Koepka described one of his putts as “trickling, hitting spike marks, things like that.” Add in strong, steady winds, and players felt for much of the afternoon like they were at the whim of a course that had shape-shifted into golf’s green monster.
After the round, USGA CEO Mike Davis admitted that the course had been poorly set up Saturday morning. He went so far as to call an impromptu press conference, calling the day “a tale of two different golf courses.”
“We saw some examples late in the day where well-executed shots were not being rewarded and were sometimes being penalized,” Davis said before assuring that the course would be watered and pins placed in such a way that Sunday should see a fairer and most reasonable game.
Still, to suggest that Shinnecock won’t feature at least some of the same issues in the Open’s final round would be overly optimistic. In preparation, Koepka offered the closest thing to a playbook for how to face the course for a second time under similar conditions. “I enjoy firing away from pins and have to be conservative sometime and just finding a way to get through it,” the defending champion said. “You’ve just got to keep going, keep firing, play to your spots, play to the center of the green. Sometimes the center of the green isn’t very good on some holes. And then you get out there—and especially downwind—you start pulling downhill, downwind, you’ve got no chance.”
So Koepka has a playbook, but it comes with no guarantees. Downhill, downwind, it’s an exercise in futility—or at least it was on Saturday in so many instances, particularly on holes 13 and 15. On the former, Phil Mickelson sparked the ire of the golf world by striking a moving putt as it rolled past the hole and down a slope; he was willing to push the limits of acceptable play rather than deal with a ball that was set to roll clear off the green. Had it, it would have been one of many, but in the early afternoon, Mickelson’s madness was just that, not yet a preview of what was about to devolve. Shinnecock transformed one of this generation’s best golfers into a frustrated putt-putt participant, his putt-jog-whack the perfect distillation of the insanity that had only just begun when he was penalized two strokes for his antics.
And for all of Koepka’s tips, the key to surviving Shinnecock may be more mental than physical. On Saturday, Furyk was the only player within four strokes of the lead who had also made the cut at Shinnecock the last time it hosted the U.S. Open, in 2004. That year, play was suspended on Sunday in order for groundskeepers to water greens so dry they’d become unplayable. Furyk, then-defending champion, would finish 18 over par. And though that experience more than a decade ago probably had little bearing on the logistics of his performance, the 48-year-old on Saturday credited his ability to keep calm and tune out the course for his score. “(I’m) not getting upset with myself,” he said, “and just accepting the mistakes because you're going to make them here. I hope to be able to do that tomorrow. You know it coming into the U.S. Open, but 90% of the guys leave here realizing that, you know, they let it bother them and let it get to them.”
Shinnecock has been a polarizing course since its last U.S. Open, and Saturday didn’t help its reputation among golfers whose reactions to it range from fear to loathing. For two rounds, it drew them in; noted Shinnecock-hater Ian Poulter went so far as to praise it after he finished Friday tied for fourth in the field. He wasn’t the only complimentary golfer, either. “The first days, it was the best setup I’ve ever seen,” Perez said. “Perfect. Pins in the right spots. It was fair. It was great. It was hard, but it was great.”
“Then today, it’s totally gone.”
It’s now up to the USGA to find it, water it, bring these 18 holes back to life.