16 Jun 2023 | Professional golf |

Clayton: A scoring massacre may be what the game needs

by Mike Clayton

Los Angeles Country Club day one of the 2023 US Open
Two 62s at the US Open's debut at LA Country Club was unprecedented in the tournament's history

Ever since Ben Hogan brought “the monster” that was the 1951 US Open course, Oakland Hills, to its knees, the championship, as a rule, has been a brutal test of golf.

As famous as Hogan’s 1951 Open was, the 1974 "Massacre at Winged Foot" saw only two men, Hale Irwin, and Forrest Fezzler, better than 10-over-par.

The USGA followed a formula of narrowed fairways, high rough, greens running at the limits of their speed and they would turn shorter Par 5s to Par 4s to lower the par and make matching it difficult in the extreme.

It was one way to do it and it was in stark contrast to the width and absence of any long grass at Augusta and the necessarily wider fairways of the Open in Britain where US Open width fairways on links courses would make the game brutally difficult and dull to watch.

The opening day at Los Angeles Country Club was a shocker for anyone expecting a typical US Open, let alone anything resembling the test Hogan and Irwin survived.

Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele were around in 62 which broke the opening day record from 1980 when both Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus shot 63.

Wyndham Clark and Dustin Johnson were 64 and Rory McIlroy tied Rickie Ponting’s doppelganger, Brian Harmon, on 65. Even-par us tied for 38th.

Predictably the post-round television discussion between Brandel Chamblee and Paul McGinley focused on a discussion about the ball and the necessity to roll the distance it files back to a place where we don’t need 280-yard par 3s or 540-yard par 4s.

Rory McIlroy, a pro roll-back guy, reduced the opening par 5 to a driver and a seven iron after a tee shot finishing 382 yards from a tee played off the practice putting green.

Chamblee thinks the way forward is to somehow reinvent architecture because, whilst romantic, it’s silly to think the game can be played using philosophies “140-years-old” revolving around width and players being advantaged by finding the side of the fairway affording an easier line into the flag.

As McGinley pointed out, angles don’t matter much – or at all – when you’ve got a wedge in your hand and the greens aren’t close to being as firm as something the members find at Royal Melbourne for the Wednesday competition.

Chamblee invoked the oft-heard argument that the modern-day athletes are better and that they aren’t changing the design of basketball courts or baseball stadiums because the players are bigger, faster and stronger.

Maybe – but courts and ovals aren’t pieces of architecture designed to ask as wide a variety of questions as a golf course.

Call it "romantic" if you like but why is it necessary to make a hole 540 yards long to ask a player to hit a middle iron into a green? Or a par 3 270 yards before they, maybe, have to hit a fairway wood? As leader Schauffele noted after he was finished “It’s rare to have to hit furniture (wood) into a par 3.”

Chamblee also decried the modern trend of removing trees and how that’s made the game too easy.

Aside from responsible tree removal (after decades of irresponsible planting) massively improving courses in this era, Chamblee’s argument it fails to address what happens at links courses where trees were never a part of the original game. Or on our best courses which, whilst tree-lined, were never dependent on trees for strategy or punishment for a wild drive.

Either way, the USGA will move tees back, find some more difficult places to cut the hole and hope the wind and the sun dry the course out a little. And whilst the USGA say they don’t care what the winning score might be, the last thing they want is 20-under winning their championship.

Or maybe a Massacre at LACC is exactly what the game needs to highlight the absurdity of the modern equipment and what it’s done to the game’s greatest courses and how they play.

No better is it exemplified than at Winged Foot’s par 4 18th hole where, in 1974, Irwin hit the 72nd green with a driver and a 2 iron. Ten years later Greg Norman hit a 6 iron and in 2006 Geoff Ogilvy went with a 9 iron.

Even Brandel would agree the 2 iron approach was the ultimate test of skill – and the irony is Irwin was the only one of the trio to hit the green.

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