When I was laying on my couch watching Sunday’s final round of the U.S. Open, it reminded me why I fell in love with the game of golf. Back in 2002, when I started swinging a golf club, the U.S. Open was won by Tiger Woods with a score of three under par. Aside for the fact I felt I could probably be the next Tiger Woods (which I am for a fact not obviously), that tough test of golf for the best players in the world is what got me really hooked with the game.
When I started watching every golf major growing up, the U.S. Open quickly became my favorite major of the four played. Why? The major tested the best in the world with every aspect of their game both physically, and mentally. It may have not been always the most exciting or prettiest to watch of the four, but I always thought it was the toughest to win. I remember watching Phil Mickelson blow a one shot lead on the 72nd hole in 2006 and go on to lose. I remember in 2007 when Angel Cabrera survived a tough golf course and won with a five over par score. I also recall Tiger birdieing the 72nd in 2008 to go one under par for the tournament and force a 18-hole playoff while on a torn ACL. Or how about Dustin Johnson in 2015 missing a one foot putt to miss out on a championship? Moments like those remind us that these players are human, and also gives us an opportunity to reflect how hard the game of golf can be.
These players can pick pocket the local golf course you play on a normal summer day. So, in order for the USGA, the governing body of the U.S. Open to make their prized tournament known as that “Ultimate Test in Golf”, they have to identify the most challenging golf courses in America. After identifying that course, you have get the fairways firm, let the rough grow out, dry out the greens, then put the pins in peculiar, but accessible places. We, as in most recreational golfers don’t get to play our rounds in these kinds of conditions because it probably would not be all too enjoyable for us.
When the late afternoon wave of the third round Saturday couldn’t access a couple of holes, I felt sorry for the USGA. There were a couple of pin placements that worked perfectly fine in the morning, but when the winds at Shinnecock Hills became stronger than they anticipated, a couple of the holes ended up being inaccessible. I thought the course was playable, but there were a couple of holes where you could question why they put pins here where there’s no margin for error if the weather goes wrong versus another place that gives you a little bit of leeway if the weather went wrong.
When it comes to setting up a golf course, the USGA has to walk a tight rope in order to achieve a tough but fair test. The softer you make the golf course, as they did in 2017, the players will attack holes more and the result will be lower scores. To me, that’s not the U.S. Open I fell in love with. If that became the norm, then the U.S. Open is getting away from its identity of being that “Ultimate test in golf” and just becomes another one of the four golf majors. But on the other hand if it was the other way, and the course gets to the point where the ground is as hard as the wooden floors in my apartment, then you have others saying it’s an unfair test. That’s part of the reason why they have gotten criticized for their course set up in three of the last four years.
It’s not easy to get tough, and fair in the same sentence at a U.S. Open. That’s exactly what Sunday’s final round turned out to be, and it was also why I was really impressed with the way Brooks Koepka won the tournament. Earlier in the day, Tommy Fleetwood shot a 63 to finish two over par for the tournament. He took advantage of a slightly softer golf course which was set for scoring. Before Shinnecock’s teeth began to show, Kopeka took advantage of the first five holes of his final round by birdieing three of them. He took a two shot lead over Fleetwood who was already in the clubhouse knowing the course was going to get tougher and tougher as winds started to pick up, and greens started to dry out.
We get to the 11th hole, and Koepka now has a three shot lead. The hole is a short, uphill Par 3, and the cup is cut out on a small plateau that’s about the size of a coffee table. He flew his shot over the green and into some thick rough about a good 20 feet below the hole. His second shot, he flew his ball over the hole again and into a bunker. He still needed to get on the green, and the hole was still 10 feet above him. He managed to get up, and drain a tough 12 foot putt onto this plateau for what turned out to be a good bogey. This hole could have easily been a five, six, or seven on a scorecard. After that point, and still holding a two shot lead on the field, I remember texting our Eric Duick that this tournament from here on out was going to be a battle of Brooks Koepka vs. Himself.
Part of the test of golf is how you embrace the shots that go bad. Shinnecock’s teeth showed for Koepka’s final seven holes. The field started seeing more golf balls flying into the thick roughs, and winds started swirling around. I promise you, playing in those kinds of conditions just as a casual 24-year-old really tests your nerves, and sometimes, it got the best of me. Kopeka saw some of those shots for the final seven holes, but it never unraveled him. He found ways to stay par for the course in those conditions while others around him crumbled. Because of that, he won the tournament for the second consecutive year.
His win reminded me why I love the game. You may be competing against 155 others for over $1 million, or just bragging rights in your favorite foursome, but in the end, if you want to be successful in playing the game, your main competition is always going to be yourself.