The u.s. golf association boss men want you to know--to use the phrase of the moment--that they get it. They get that they blew it last year at Shinnecock Hills on U.S. Open Sunday, when the wind came up, the course became crispy and two or three of the holes became nearly unplayable. You can try to make the case to Fred Ridley, the USGA president, that he and his people are being too hard on themselves, that hairy weather and unmerciful courses are elements of the game, that the players were all slugging it out under the same conditions (except those who got the benefit of just-watered greens), that the championship still produced a world-class winner in Retief Goosen. Ridley will have none of it. During a recent round at this year's Open venue, the No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, he confessed, "One of my predecessors once said, 'We're not trying to embarrass the best golfers in the world; we're trying to identify them.' Last year we embarrassed some of them."
It is a kinder, gentler USGA that's preparing for this year's U.S. Open, which begins on June 16. For the first time the organization has asked a small group of players to assess the course in the weeks before the Open and to alert the USGA to potential problem areas. On May 24 Nick Price, a golf traditionalist, toured the understated Donald Ross gem as a USGA reviewer. The Hall of Famer, playing in this year's Open on a special exemption, was an interesting choice. Price has been a vocal critic of the USGA for a decade, siding with those who claim that some courses are becoming obsolete for pros because the game's governing bodies are doing too little to regulate advances in equipment. Price has also said that because of some poor choices by the USGA last year, "what could have been one of the most delicious Sundays in the history of the U.S. Open turned into a mockery." His friend Ernie Els, in the day's last group, shot a final-round 80--and not because he hit a bunch of duffs.
Price played No. 2 with his manager, David Abell, who's a long-hitting scratch golfer, and two Pinehurst regulars. Price feels that if the USGA doesn't do anything to screw up the course--cut holes in the wrong places, make the greens too fast--it is potentially the best of all the U.S. Open courses he has played. That evening at a cocktail party he conferred with Ridley and Walter Driver, the chairman of the USGA's championship committee and Ridley's likely successor. (Both volunteers, they are lawyers in their working lives. There's a lot of that going around in the USGA.)
"I really don't have much for you," Price told the USGA executives. That was an unusual thing to hear from him. Price usually sounds as if he is presenting a doctoral thesis when discussing the fine points of the game. But for Ridley and Driver he had only two main points. One was that the rough was short and not nearly punitive enough. (That's because of a cool spring in Pinehurst; things will change in the coming weeks if June is warm.) The second was that the grass on the slopes surrounding the greens--and those slopes are the course's ultimate trademark--needs to be mowed very close, so that the players can choose among all 14 clubs in their bag when playing greenside pitches, chips and putts. If the grass is too long and if it is always brushed away from the green, then the player has no choice but to pitch the ball onto the green, because the grass will be too clingy to run the ball up the banks.
Driver nodded gravely when he heard Price's comments. If there's a great pleasure in being a volunteer USGA committeeman these days, it's not obvious to outsiders. This year the USGA has prepared a sober position paper, available at usga.org, titled U.S. Open Championship Philosophy, a 14-point list describing how the USGA sets up an Open course. The document concludes with a statement that sounds true only in theory: "There is no USGA target score for a U.S. Open. While the final score at some U.S. Open sites will be at or near par, the USGA does not try to formulate a course setup that will only produce a winning score at or near even par." Can you hear the advice of counsel in the preceding two (2) sentences?
On May 25 Ridley and Driver, both good golfers, played the course from the Open tees. They were clearly worried about the lack of rough. Driver said the goal was to have it be 3--3 1/2 inches high. The rough was about 2 inches tall that day. The fairway grass was also sparse in places, to some eyes a welcome sight in this day of overfertilized courses, but the USGA craves uniformity. Driver carried with him a map of each green that showed all four hole positions from the '99 Open and the severity of the slope near the holes. The USGA doesn't want to see shots that nearly stop within two feet of the hole, then go sailing down some crazy slope and finish 100 feet away. That would embarrass the best players in the world.
The scoring could be very low. If the hole positions are sane, which they will be; if the rough is playable, which is likely; and if the wind is calm, which it could be, there will be scores well under 280, which is par. The USGA is fine with that; at least that's what the boss men are saying. Remember, according to the USGA's U.S. Open philosophy, a winning score at or near even par is not a goal.
Ridley played very well during his test run, holing a putt on the last for a 78--six over par on the regular No. 2 card, eight over on the par-70 U.S. Open card. "That's our goal," Driver said. "If we can play one of these U.S. Open courses in under 80, we're doing all right."
USGA officials may have target scores in informal rounds on Open courses in the weeks preceding the championship, but the USGA does not--we repeat, does not--have a target score in mind for the world's best players in the championship itself. It says so right on its website.