Monday, June 22, 2015

The U.S. Open is on the Verge of Irrelevance

Our national golf tournament has an image problem. It’s now the tournament everyone hates.

The U.S. Open is one of golf’s majors but it received nothing but a mountain of negative publicity over the past week, from a course in unplayable condition to a new TV deal with Fox Sports that was an unmitigated disaster.

jason day us open
I love golf. I love the majors. I watch to be entertained. The other majors all have a defining, unique characteristic that draws in viewers.

The Masters is, well, the Masters, with the greatest back nine on Earth. The British Open is the history of golf sprung to life, where the conditions determine the score and you’ve traveled back in time. The PGA Championship is the professional major – a tournament that goes to America’s most entertaining courses and lets the pros make birdies to win. Even the Players Championship, the so-called Fifth Major, is the epitome of “modern” golf, with a stadium design, the island green and the ultimate in risk/reward golf.

The US Open? It’s the sadistic golf tournament, where the best players in the world struggle to make pars in a desperate attempt to win a major.

During an illuminating Golf Channel feature on the genesis of Chambers Bay, it explained that the course was awarded the 2015 U.S. Open because two historic courses – Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills – declined to host the event. That should not be a surprise. In 2004, the USGA destroyed Shinnecock Hills to the point that some holes were quite literally unplayable on Sunday without being watered. In 2006, Winged Foot was so hard that Geoff Ogilvy won at +5 as Phil Mickelson disintegrated down the stretch.

In fact, the overwhelming memories I have from the U.S. Open over the past 20 years is the USGA tricking up and ruining the best golf courses in our country. In 2010, the wonderful Par 5 14th hole at Pebble Beach was unfair. In 2013, Merion’s 18th green could not receive a ball and keep it. This year, the greens at Chambers Bay were compared to broccoli and “outdoor bingo” by pros.

The course management by the USGA in its bizarre quest to keep the winning score at level par results in golf courses that resemble paved highways and par fives becoming par fours. This year, the group took it to another extreme by switching the pars on #1 and #18 every day. It’s a joke and everyone but the USGA realizes this.

It’s a shame because our national open should be a celebration of golf in this country. Does anyone give a flying you-know-what if the winning score is 10-under or 2-over? Not only do the vast majority of golf fans not care, they would certainly prefer the former to the latter.

It is bizarre, but the USGA knows it has an image problem because it left a successful, two-decade partnership with NBC to pursue a new one with Fox. The only slight problem is that Fox had never, ever televised a golf tournament before.

There is no polite way to describe Fox’s coverage of the 2015 U.S. Open. Joe Buck was his usually snarky, unfunny self who appeared to be watching his first golf tournament. Curt Menefee was certainly watching his first golf tournament. They had Charles Davis – a college football announcer!! – handling post-round interviews. The camera routinely failed to follow the ball. The on-course reporters were awful, culminating in Corey Pavin blaming the trees – there is a grand total of 1 on Chambers Bay – for players not gauging the wind correctly. Holly Sonders second question to champion Jordan Spieth on Sunday was, “Did you bring a fifth outfit?” I could go on for another 400 words but you get the idea.

I understand the USGA’s desire to switch it up, but leaving NBC was made all the more head-scratching since NBC and the Golf Channel are the same company. In this newly-created void, the British Open swooped in and will receive far superior coverage from those two entities in the near future while the U.S. Open is covered by a group of novices.

Unfortunately, there is little impetus for change. By its status as a major, the U.S. Open will always draw an audience. Players like Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlory may complain about the set-up but they know, ultimately, they need to play and win the tournament for their legacy. For the rank and file, the U.S. Open has proven to be the best way to sneak in a major on the resume, just ask Lucas Glover, Webb Simpson, Steve Jones or Michael Campbell. It is a tournament that has become far too dependent on luck and that opens up the cast of characters who can win.

I watched the U.S. Open this weekend, but it was different. In fact, I turned off Fox’s primetime coverage on Thursday and Friday because it was unwatchable. Between the clown’s mouth greens and the incessant banter of nonsense, it was too much. If not for an amazing finish over the last three holes, the tournament would have been remembered as one of the worst ever.

A half-century ago, golfers grew up wanting to win the U.S. Open – from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus, our national open was the ultimate.

Today, golfers grow up dreading the U.S. Open. As kids, they are in the backyard making birdies to win the Masters or the British Open. No one dreams of making par to win a major. That’s why no one dreams of winning the U.S. Open anymore.

If that trend continues, the U.S. Open will continue its fade. It is clearly third on the major totem pole and the far more exciting Players’ and PGA Championships may soon overtake it.

The USGA needs to stop destroying our nation’s best golf courses and start showcasing our world’s best golfers.

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1 comment:

  1. I was luck enough to play the Riverside and Highlands courses at Atlanta Athletic Club a month ago, and the Highlands course was in considerable (though still amazing) worse shape than the Riverside course. The Highlands hosted the PGA in 2011, and in 2014 hosted the US Amateur. The USGA baked everything out so much for the Amateur that the club is likely to re-do many fairways and greens within the next year...just some food for thought.

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