- The test at the U.S. Open should be stiff but not unpassable. The USGA has nailed that balance so far.
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Do you hear that? The sound of PGA Tour pros complaining about the U.S. Open course setup? No? Neither do I.
In a complete 180 from last year’s U.S. Open at Shinnecock and the year before at Erin Hills and two years before that at Chambers Bay, the reviews of Pebble Beach have been overwhelmingly positive.
Justin Thomas, one of the USGA’s most outspoken critics, tweeted this after missing the cut: “Pebble is PERFECT and has been such a great set up thus far. Getting firm and will show the best players come weeks end. Well done @USGA.”
Zach Johnson, who famously said Shinnecock was “lost” last year: “It's fantastic. Whatever they're doing it's great. You play quality golf you get rewarded.”
Phil Mickelson, who recently said the USGA messes up every rainless Open: “I've got to hand it to the USGA for doing a great setup. It's the best I've ever seen. And it's identifying the best players. It's making the players the story.”
It’s a beautiful change of pace. From recent U.S. Opens, yes, but also from just a fortnight ago.
Two weeks before this event, Golf Digest posted an article in which (anonymous) players, caddies and coaches ripped the U.S. Open to shreds. You know the gripes by now: The setups are unfair. USGA leadership is out of touch. Why are they so obsessed with par? One player even said his peers were considering boycotting the tournament altogether at one point.
Were those complaints overblown? Surely. But anytime that many prominent people criticize an organization, that organization needs to listen, whether the criticisms are fair or not. The USGA did exactly that. In January, while the wounds from Shinnecock were still fresh, Mike Davis stepped down from his longtime role as course setup Czar and handed it over to John Bodenhamer. In March, right after the USGA found itself in a bizarre social media spat with Thomas, they hired Jason Gore as the first-ever player relations director.
But all of that would be for naught if the course became a story at another U.S. Open. They knew they had to nail this one.
“This is an important week,” Davis said Wednesday. “Not only for golf, this is an important week for the USGA.”
“I think it's critical,” Bodenhamer said when asked how important it was for this week to go smoothly. “I think we've talked about it all year long,”
Luckily for them, Pebble Beach was next up in the rotation. It would take a concerted effort to screw up Pebble Beach, a golf heaven that, all at once, is both preposterously beautiful and a wonderful test for championship golf. Bodenhamer didn’t futz with the layout much at all. The best game plan for hosting an event here is to simply let Pebble be Pebble, and that’s exactly what he did.
That’s not to say this course is too easy, because it’s not, no matter what you read on Twitter. It has rewarded good shots and punished bad ones. The greens have become progressively firmer throughout the week. The rough has been crippling. The pins have been tricky. Yes, Gary Woodland’s 54-hole lead of 11 under is lower than normal, but that’s the result of a largely windless three days. Pebble shows its teeth when there’s a gale coming off the water, and that just hasn’t happened. The USGA can’t control the weather.
Rory McIlroy was asked what he would say to fans suggesting the course is playing too easy.
"Come play it yourself,” he said. A perfect response.
The USGA has shown great restraint by not trying to compensate for the lack of wind with hokey pins and dried out greens. There’s no reason to diverge from that approach for the final round. Yes, Sunday pins should be more difficult. No, they don’t need to be ridiculous. The test should be stiff but not unpassable. They’ve nailed that balance so far. Tomorrow we will find out whether Bodenhamer will continue that strategy and continue to let the players be the story.