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When it comes to course set-ups for the three American majors, it has often been a case of the three bears:
The PGA Championship has been too easy.
The U.S. Open has been too hard.
The Masters has gotten it just right.
In recent days, that tale has shifted just a bit.
It is still true that the PGA Championship remains the most user-friendly of the three. Kerry Haigh has never shown an inclination to brutalize the field or been afraid to see his tournament surrender red numbers over the course of four days. For whatever reason, the championship has been treated by players and the press as golf’s “fourth” major, both chronologically and charismatically.
The organization, to its credit, has not been averse to taking a chance on a new venue added to the major rotation, and they have dared to make stops in regions the USGA rarely—if ever—has considered.
The Masters has seen a ten-year revision of the golf course and the property, with muscle (length), accuracy (rough) and foresting used to modernize the test for their field. With the advantage of having the same canvas to work with each year, the Committee at Augusta National can paint with finer brush strokes than either of their two counterparts. Over four days, it seems possible that without a major weather intervention the Masters can be orchestrated to produce scoring to match the daily tastes of current conductor, Fred Ridley.
After shooting 66 on Friday this year at Augusta, Tiger Woods observed: “I think what they did is they gave us another step, step-and-a-half on some of these pins. That’s a lot here with these slopes. You give us a step, step-and-a-half, that’s quite a bit.”
You could almost pencil in today where most of the holes will be located on Sunday next year at the Masters, but with the slight variations Tiger noted, Ridley dialed in a fourth round formula that produced a finish not seen in years.
For the USGA, the pendulum never swings to the easy (Johnny Miller at Oakmont in 1973 being the exception), and on occasion it has pushed the field to the other edge. Twice in the last 20 years, final days at the U.S. Open have embarrassed the field and elicited brutal criticism of the USGA. On both occasions it could be argued fairly that Mother Nature’s intervention was the primary factor, not human lapses in judgment.
In 1992 at Pebble Beach, Dr. Gil Morgan skated though the course in red numbers the first two days, but when the winds came up on Sunday, strong enough to blow the magnetic numbers off the scoreboards, it appeared none of the third round leaders would survive (Tom Kite did). In 2004, the opening two rounds were equally controversy-free but Sunday at Shinnecock set a standard the USGA has been running from ever since. Winds that swept the course overnight (and into the next day) dried the course and left much of the field helpless to come up with a solution.
It was a moment that scarred many in the organization and has produced a mentality about U.S. Open setups that prevails today. Less than two year after Shinnecock, course strategist Tom Meeks was gone and Mike Davis in place. And the Davis template is now clearly the overlay for all USGA majors, especially the U.S. Open.
Davis’ examination is not the true/false test that had been the personality of the U.S. Open down through the years. For the players this week at Congressional, there are multiple-choice questions with an occasional essay thrown in. When the U.S. Open last visited Congressional in 1997, course management strategy was simple—hit in the fairway, play on; hit it in the rough, gouge it out and then play on.
Davis’ Congressional will have his trademark graduated rough where the thinking is the punishment should fit the crime. In ’97 the players would study the pin sheet when they arrived at the course. In 2011 they have to look at the teeing grounds as well. Every round for Davis is a fresh quiz, with holes shortened and lengthened to see if the field has studied before heading out. Instead of stretching par 5’s beyond a players reach, Davis likes to bait the hook and reel in those who fail to execute the choice they have made. There is almost always the drivable par 4 served up at least a day or two.
In today’s U.S. Open setup you don’t figure out how to play the course, you have to figure out how to play the courses, and Congressional offers an opportunity for the Davis template to play to its full potential.
The last three U.S. Open’s have been ocean venues—Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines, true seaside courses and Bethpage, just under water. Congressional is Davis’ first inland test since Oakmont (2007)—and while wind and other weather may factor in, the variables are more likely to be on the ground than in the air.
On Saturday last year at Pebble Beach, I bumped into USGA Vice President Tom O’Toole. I complimented him on what appeared to be a three-day success story in terms of the course. O’Toole accepted to compliment but cautioned they were still worried about having the course get away from them if the wind came up. Seaside preparations necessitate a setup Plan A and Plan B. Inland courses figure to be less volatile.
For Davis, now the dual threat at the USGA as both the setup wizard and newly ordained President of the USGA, Congressional may presage the look of the Championship in the coming years. After navigating the seaside setup at Olympic next year, the Championship stays inland the following two years at the intriguing Merion and Pinehurst #2.
Since he replaced Meeks in 2006, Davis has gone unmarked by Monday morning analysis. Perhaps his new formula allows him to share assessments that he, too, has gotten it “just right.”
Dan Reardon has covered 75 major championships, five Ryder Cups, dozens of PGA, LPGA and Senior PGA Tour events. Visit CBS Local St. Louis for additional golf coverage.