- From Brooks Koepka's win to Phil Mickelson's antics and Tiger Woods's disappointing performance, we look back at what stood out the most from this year's U.S. Open.
The U.S. Open is in the books, and what a memorable week it was. After a dramatic, controversy-filled tournament like we had at Shinnecock Hills, it makes it hard to believe that the event covered the same amount of time as, say, the FedEx St. Jude Classic the week before. It felt like a month. Without further ado, let's discuss the week's main talking points...
Well, it seems like Phil Mickelson’s decision to putt a moving ball will be what the casual fan remembers most about this U.S. Open. What are your thoughts on the whole thing?
Right you are. Nothing throws the golf world into a heated, name-calling, think-of-the-children frenzy quite like a rules controversy. This game is built on honor, the saying goes, and when someone toes the integrity line by purposefully…how should we put it…using the rules to his advantage, golf people are personally offended.
Remember last week’s backstopping debate, borne of Jimmy Walker’s puzzling decision to reveal that sometimes players don’t mark a ball near the hole to help out a guy they like? People were mad. Really, really mad. In 2013, Tiger took a questionable drop at a tournament and Brandel Chamblee gave his entire season an "F" grade despite the fact that Tiger won five times and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year. Vijay Singh once cheated on the Asian Tour by signing for a lower score than he shot. His reputation never fully recovered.
In politics, ain’t no controversy like a sex controversy. In golf, ain’t no controversy like a rules controversy.
On Saturday, I was out following other groups when the Putt Heard Round the World. was struck. If you live under a rock or just don’t follow golf closely (you’re reading this column, so that’s likely not the case), here’s what happened: On the 13th hole at Shinnecock in the third round of the U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson hit a putt way too hard, sending it tumbling past the hole and headed down a slope. The ball was going to end up some 30 yards off the green and roll behind a bunker, leaving a devilish pitch off a razor-thin lie. Phil decided that he simply didn’t want to hit that pitch, so he did a jog-type thing (Phil’s not winning any competitions at the PGA Tour Scouting Combine), got behind the ball and putted it back up the hill…while the ball was still moving. It was one of those moments where your immediate reaction is, you just can’t do that.
Nevertheless, the USGA bent over backwards to classify his actions under Rule 14-5, which states that the penalty for striking a moving ball is two strokes. Intent, under this rule, is not considered. It’s a two-stroke penalty, cut and dry. I thought the better rule to apply would have been Rule 1-2, which covers “deflecting” or “stopping” a moving ball. Under this rule, intent is considered, and if a player is deemed to have purposefully violated the rule to gain a competitive advantage, he should be disqualified.
The reason intent isn’t mentioned in Rule 14-5 is because this rule was written with accidental violations in mind. Say you’re hitting the ball off a severe upslope, and as you take your club back, the ball starts moving but you’re not Tiger Woods so you can’t stop your swing whenever and you hit the ball anyway. That’s a two-stroke penalty. That’s what Rule 14-5 is designed to regulate, not a Phil-like situation.
I asked John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s head of competitions, why Phil wasn’t DQ’d under that provision in 1-2. He told me that Phil didn’t stop or deflect the ball. I would counter with, physics (and logic) would state that hitting a moving object is quite literally deflecting it from its path. I then asked him what a deflect would look like, and he told me if Phil had stopped the ball from going out of bounds, that’d qualify. Apparently stopping a ball from rolling down a hill doesn’t fall under the same purview?
I have two takeaways from the whole thing. First, I think it’s pretty clear that Phil should have been disqualified. Second, and related to the first, Rule 14-5 needs to be amended to include an intent provision. If you purposefully hit a moving ball, you should be DQ’d. End of story.
A bunch of writers penned eloquent takedowns of Phil, accusing him of violating the game’s essence and tarnishing his legacy and even, remarkably, doing damage to millions of children watching him. These columns have become almost as controversial as Phil’s putt, as many non-golf people have pointed to golf media’s reaction as symptomatic of the game's inability to reach the common sports fan. The whole sport just takes itself too seriously, they say.
Let’s calm down just a little, on both sides. Phil obviously lost his temper and was super frustrated. On his 48th birthday, he slid way out of contention in the only tournament he needs to win to complete the career Grand Slam. At the time of his actions, the greens were firming up and the course was becoming more and more unplayable. He snapped. He didn’t try to get away with what he did. But he should have been DQ’d. One can think he should have been disqualified without feeling personally affronted. It was a less-than-shining moment for a player who has been, inarguably, tremendous for the game of golf. Nothing more, nothing less.
Brooks Koepka is now a two-time major champion, but he only has three PGA Tour victories overall. I’m having a hard time deciding where he ranks among the game’s elite 20-somethings. Does he deserve a place alongside guys like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas?
This gets back to the question of how we judge players. Is it solely based on their total number of wins? Some combination of PGA Tour wins and majors? Major wins only? By how many top 10s they put up in majors? Do we go by the Official World Golf Rankings, which were designed to mercifully end this very discussion?
There’s no right answer to this question—you can rank players using whatever criteria you please, and different players excel at different things.
Koepka, who is a year younger than McIlroy but a full three years older than Spieth and Thomas, doesn’t have as many wins as any of those players. Not even close—Rory has 14, Spieth 11, Thomas eight. Koepka is a guy who plays disproportionately well (compared to his performance in regular Tour events) at majors. That’s no coincidence—the major championships are golf’s most demanding events, and any weakness in your game is exposed. For example, a guy who can only shape the ball right to left can win a couple Tour events on layouts that favor a draw. A major championship, however, is never going to be played on a course that doesn’t require you to hit all the shots. The cream of the crop rises to the top of the leaderboard in major after major for this reason—their games are the most complete.
As far as the eye test goes, Koepka’s game is as solid as anyone’s in the world. He hits it as long as anybody—I can’t be the only one that noticed that he hit it within five yards of Dustin in that final round—and as cleanly as anybody. He can hit it low and he can hit it high. His short-to-mid range putting is rock solid. And perhaps most importantly for the majors, he never gets too pumped up nor too dejected. As our Michael Rosenberg put it, he has those “steely eyes." All in all, his game is perfectly suited for difficult layouts.
CBS’s Kyle Porter (via ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg) made a pretty interesting comparison after Koepka won on Sunday: Koepka is America’s version of Angel Cabrera, the Argentinian who won only three PGA Tour events but took home two majors and lost in a playoff at another. The point is well taken. Koepka contends regularly in majors but doesn’t really bother with the Honda Classics of the world.
But I find two major issues with the comparison: A) Koepka is ripped. Like, peak-Tiger level ripped. Angel Cabrera is…not, and B) Angel only won two total and didn’t win his first until he was 37. Brooks has two and he’s only 28. And unlike Angel, I don’t think his major total will finish at two.
Were the players just whining, or did they have a point on Saturday when they called Shinnecock Hills “lost” and “completely gone”?
Before we get into a serious discussion about the golf course, I must say I find it absolutely hilarious that the vernacular for a course becoming unfair is that it’s “gone” or “lost.” Of course I understand what they mean. But imagine you’re just learning English and you hear someone say a golf course is gone, when it fact it hasn’t moved at all. It’s still right there, in the exact same spot. Anyway, let’s move on.
I talked to a bunch of players about the course on Saturday, and most of them agreed with Zach Johnson, who told Sky Sports that the course had crossed the line into unfair. There was a small portion that enjoyed the challenge, with one saying “20-under shouldn’t be the winning score every week. I love how hard it was. These guys are complainers.” From my vantage point, the issue with the course on Saturday wasn’t that the greens were too firm or the rough too thick. The pins were put in terrible spots that were way too close to severe ridges. On a hot, windy day, you have to know the greens are going to dry up, and you can’t put the pins in diabolical locations when the greens are as firm as a baked-out Wimbledon center court.
There was really only an issue for two out of 45 hours of total play, so hardly a 2004-level disaster. Plus, the stacked leaderboard gave the USGA something to point to as evidence of the course’s being a fair test. But still, you have to question the USGA’s decision makers here. They’ve found a way to screw up at least parts of the U.S. Open three out of the last four years: the greens at Chambers Bay (2015) were no bueno, Erin Hills was just way too easy (2017) and Shinnecock had the issues on Saturday. Only Oakmont in 2016 was controversy-free… oh wait, no it wasn’t! That’s the year the USGA made Dustin Johnson play the last four holes of a major without knowing whether he was going to be penalized for accidentally making a ball move on the 14th green.
The players seem absolutely fed up with the USGA. They truly think the powers that be there don’t know what they’re doing. It’s gotten to the point where the relationship between organization and players is semi-toxic and badly needs repairing. Don’t be surprised if some major changes take place at the very top of the USGA’s leadership.
Tiger used to be a guy who’d contend in majors even when he was in poor form heading into them. Now, it seems like the opposite. What’s up with this?
Here’s a pretty stunning stat: In the last seven majors Tiger Woods—14-time major champion Tiger Woods—has played in, he’s missed the cut five times. The two times he’s made the weekend were both at the Masters, a tournament in which a higher percentage of players make the cut than any other. He’s missed five straight cuts in majors not played at Augusta. In the previous 65 majors he competed in as a professional, Woods missed the cut three times.
Certainly a lot of his recent struggles in golf’s four big ones have been due to injury. He was a shell of himself throughout the second half of 2014 and reached rock bottom in 2015. His record before 2014 in majors is unparalleled.
So, the injury justification is valid for those 2014-16 years. Not so much in 2018, when he looks completely healthy and is swinging it as fast as he did in his prime. This year, Tiger tied for 32nd at the Masters and missed the cut at Shinnecock by two. By anyone’s standards, a really disappointing set of results. What gives?
I think something that no one talks about with Tiger in the majors is nerves. Yes, yes, I know how ridiculous it sounds to suggest that a guy with 79 PGA Tour victories is nervous in any setting on a golf course. But Tiger knows his time to realistically contend in majors is running out. He knows his body could break down at any point. He wants so desperately to win another major and put the trophy right in the face of all the people who swore he’d never return to the Tour again, much less win a big one.
I think, for all the reasons above, maybe he puts some extra pressure on himself to perform. He’d never admit it, of course, and I could be way off here, but I think wanting to win something that badly combined with knowing you won’t get many more chances leads to nerves. And nerves lead to bad golf.
More technically speaking, he’s just not as good right now as he used to be. There have been flashes—at Bay Hill, at the Players, at the Valspar—but Woods is nowhere near as consistent as he was during his prime. His game has holes, and interestingly enough, the holes change from week to week. At the Memorial he couldn’t putt at all. Earlier in the season he couldn’t find a fairway to save his life. At the Masters his iron approaches let him down. Like we talked about with Brooks, you just can’t have any holes at a major. They get exposed. Major-ly.