It seems like just about every year, there are questions about the U.S. Open. Questions may not be the best word for it -- gripes, complaints, snarky comments from the best golfers in the world also fit here. The central question, however, is this: Is [insert U.S. Open course here] playing unfair?
When it comes to the U.S. Open, we know what to expect. With a few exceptions -- Congressional, for instance -- scores will hover around, at or above par. You're not going to see a barrage of birdies and numbers in the low 60s very often. It just doesn't happen at the U.S. Open.
With higher scores come complaints. This year, Zach Johnson is the one lashing out at the USGA for what he calls "manipulation" of Merion (via CBS Sports):
"I would describe the whole golf course as manipulated," Johnson said.
"It just enhances my disdain for the USGA and how it manipulates golf courses.
At the most basic level, Johnson is right. The USGA did manipulate Merion -- and manipulates every U.S. Open course. Setting up a course for the U.S. Open is a lengthy process -- one where the course supervisor essentially hands over the keys years in advance, then gets them back weeks after the tournament concludes. In that time, the USGA sets up a course in a slow and drawn-out process: The rough is grown, the short grass is firmed up and tee boxes are moved and changed.
Merion was manipulated, and needed to be. It's a short course, not your typical U.S. Open monster. The rough was re-planted and grown out to nasty levels as is customary at the USGA's signature event. Tee shots in the fairway are of the utmost importance; miss and the rough is penal. Holes were lengthened, angles were changed and greens were re-graded.
What Johnson actually seems to be saying, though, is the course is unfair. It's a common refrain at the U.S. Open. Courses are setup to walk a fine line between playable and not, with firm and fast greens and fairways that require precise shots and a significant amount of control.
Unfair is a tricky term when it comes to golf. A score relative to par won't tell the whole story, nor will it answer the unfair question. Instead, to answer the question we'll need to be more anecdotal. Namely, the question to ask is if good shots are rewarded.
If a player hits a good shot and it ends up in a bad spot -- and this happens repeatedly -- then we can go ahead and wonder if a course is unfair. A few times is luck, or typical golf. Everyone gets a bad kick or a ball that zips off a green. If it's happening consistently, then it's fair to wonder whether a course is, well ... unfair.
That's not happening at Merion, or not so much that it's jumped out. Sure, there's the occasional bad kick, but for the most part good shots are rewarded and bad shots are penalized, which is the goal of the USGA. Par should be a good score, the USGA theorizes, and it is at Merion.
Take Olympic Club last year, for example. That was a course teetering on the edge of insanity. It didn't cross that line, I don't think, but it was playing long, firm and fast, with massively penal rough and greens that weren't very receptive. I saw many players stripe excellent shots into the par-5 17th, only to watch the ball land on the front of the green, bounce like it hit a trampoline, and roll all the way off the green and down a hill into a chipping area between two trees. Unfair? Maybe.
In 2004 at Shinnecock, the USGA had to repeatedly water the 7th green during Sunday's final round because it was running like concrete every time a ball landed. This is the most modern and ignominious example of the USGA letting a course get away from them and having the setup clearly cross over the line into unfair. It also forced the entire organization to reexamine how far they were going with these layouts, and the more benign graduated rough system was implemented two years later at Winged Foot.
Merion got its dose of water throughout the week and softened up as a result. You're not seeing precise tee shots into fairways zip off into the rough; balls are landing and more-or-less stopping due to the receptive short grass. Same with the greens: We're seeing players spin short irons and wedges, which isn't something you often watch at a U.S. Open.
In its own way, the U.S. Open is special. Players aren't beating the heck out of a course and posting numbers double digits under par. It's a true test where par is a great number. It's a tournament that requires a significant amount of mental fortitude and the ability to grind out a number while limiting big misses. It's ... it's a U.S. Open.
So back to Zach Johnson who, like many before him, seems to feel wronged by the USGA. At their most basic level, his comments are true: The USGA, by definition, does manipulate courses to set them up for an Open. But he seems to be implying that Mike Davis and his crew have gone too far at Merion, and it feels like someone upset with a few bad rounds more than anything.
Besides, it's fun to watch a golf course -- even a short, historic track like Merion -- show its teeth and not concede to the world's best. We'll see a score close to par as the winning number on Sunday (or Monday) afternoon, and that's OK.
It's a U.S. Open. It's not supposed to be easy.