Back around the turn of the previous century, when the U.S. Open was played on a course named after four guys with poor vision, a golfer known as J.D. Tucker finished with a first-round score of 157. That was back in 1898 at the Myopia Hunt Club in Massachusetts; three years later, in 1901 at Myopia, Willie Anderson set the record for the highest winning score (331) by a U.S. Open champion, a mark that seems likely to stand in perpetuity, or at least until persimmon drivers come back into vogue.
The point is this: There’s an element of masochism to this tournament that goes back more than a century. The U.S. Open, the one major tournament that’s (at least technically) attainable for everyone, is supposed to frustrate the best professionals in the world in the way that no other tournament does. That’s all fine, and that’s to be expected, and in past years most of the bitching and moaning by tour pros about the unfairness of the conditions and the unevenness of the greens could mostly be relished by us common folk as the overbearing whining of the one percent.
But this year they might have actually had a point.
On Sunday at Chambers Bay near Tacoma, Washington, Jordan Spieth followed up his Masters victory by squeezing out a win over a three-putting Dustin Johnson at the first Open ever played in the Pacific Northwest. It was a hell of a finish, and Spieth is now a legitimate threat to become the first player in modern history to win a Grand Slam, except the course largely overshadowed the achievement. No one wound up particularly happy after four days at Chambers Bay: Not the players (at least one of whom, Jason Day, literally couldn’t stand up to the overheated conditions), not the fans and certainly not Gary Player, who went off on a protracted rant that invoked drought and the dinner table and lie-detector tests. And the reason Player’s rant matters is because it was about something more than the unfair setup of the greens and the capricious layout of a massive course laden with temperamental and alien-looking fescue grass and an 18th that Spieth called “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played.” The reason Player’s rant matters is because it really addressed the future of golf itself.
That’s the underlying theme of the U.S. Open, after all – it is a tribute to the amateur, to the average guy, to duffers like J.D. Tucker (not to mention duffers like Tiger Woods). That means the course should melt down professionals in order to make the game seem more accessible, but it should also be played on layouts that could also prove inviting to the amateurs who actually play them. But Chambers Bay was never that course. Chambers Bay was constructed by a celebrity architect in the express hope of luring a U.S. Open to the Pacific Northwest; Chambers Bay was a public course that was shrouded, from the beginning, in elitism.
And amid the varied meanderings, this was Player’s point: That a 7,900-yard course is not just irresponsible in terms of water usage; it’s irresponsible in terms of the way it treats the average player who tries to navigate it. It takes forever to play, and it is unnecessarily cruel, and it came along at a time when courses are closing and public participation in the sport has spiked sharply downward. “We’ve gotta make golf to where it’s quicker and more enjoyable,” Player said. “We’re going about it the wrong way. This is devastating.”
Player also used the word “tragedy,” and that’s obviously a bit of an overstatement, but there’s something to his overarching argument. The disconnect between professional golf (which is doing fine) and actual golf (which is not doing fine) is not often a subject broached by the players themselves. But this is a participatory sport, and one does tend to beget the other, and the U.S. Open should strike a balance – it should be a punishing week for the professional and a tantalizing invitation to the amateur, who can walk the course and get up close and maybe even imagine playing this course himself.
Chambers Bay, wrote Yahoo’s Pat Forde, “is steep, sandy, slippery and long – an arduous course to walk. Worse than that, the hills and dunes that rise around every hole severely limit sight lines, which means there are fewer places here than just about any other course to actually see golfers and golf shots.” Which is why it felt like the most myopic choice for a U.S. Open since Myopia itself.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb