A sure sign that the USGA needs to take a closer look at how it sets up the U.S. Open is when it draws comparisons with the Travelers Championship a week later.
Only this has nothing to do with the scoring.
To suggest that TPC River Highlands at 1,000 yards shorter was a tougher test than Erin Hills is to ignore that the U.S. Open played as a par 72 for the first time in 25 years. Golf is about the lowest score, not the lowest score to par. Jordan Spieth won the Travelers after finishing at 268. Brooks Koepka won a U.S. Open in soft conditions and moderate wind at 272.
It’s not about the finish, either.
Spieth, as popular as any player, holed a 60-foot bunker shot in a playoff to beat Daniel Berger. Those moments are rare, even for Spieth. They hardly ever happen in a major, perhaps because there are only four majors a year. And even then, it usually involves only a putter (Phil Mickelson at Augusta, Payne Stewart at Pinehurst).
What the Travelers Championship had was noise.
It had atmosphere.
“I mean, the ground was shaking it was so loud,” Spieth said. “What a tremendous last four holes, finishing holes, where you can get the crowd super involved with an amphitheater setting. If I were a fan, I would pick this tournament.”
He also mentioned the Phoenix Open, and the list would have grown had he had more time to think, such as Muirfield Village or TPC Sawgrass.
The U.S. Open had 652 acres of Wisconsin pasture.
It also had an outstanding golf course in Erin Hills that didn’t play to full strength when the wind didn’t fully cooperate until Sunday. Part of its appeal, however, was the size of its property. Majors are the biggest shows in golf and need space. They attract more corporate interest and more fans from outside the local market than the Travelers Championship or the Honda Classic.
But the value of atmosphere should not be overlooked. A big atmosphere comes from energized, enthusiastic fans. And those fans get their energy from being close to the action, feeding off the noise around them. That starts with being able to see golf without having to squint their eyes.
The lack of major atmosphere was evident at Erin Hills.
It was even worse at Chambers Bay, the public course built out of a sand and gravel pit next to the Puget Sound. On one hole, fans were perched high on a ridge and looked like a row of figurines from down below. The par-5 eighth hole at Chambers Bay didn’t have any fans at all.
That’s the biggest risk the USGA is taking by going to big, new courses.
What makes Augusta National so appealing are the roars from every corner of the golf course, particularly when they rise up the hill from Amen Corner. PGA Championship venues put fans on top of the action, particularly at Valhalla and Baltusrol and Hazeltine.
The U.S. Open returns to traditional courses with a smaller blueprint over the next decade. Even after a soft, calm year, it should not lose its reputation as the toughest test in golf.
But setting up the courses involves more than the length of the rough, width of the fairways and speed of the green. It also includes where to put the ropes.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Quicken Loans National
Course: TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, Potomac, Md.; 7,107 yards, par 70
Purse: $7.1 million (First prize: $1,278,000)
TV: Thursday-Friday, 3:30-6:30 p.m. (GC); Saturday, 1-2:30 p.m. (GC); 3-6 p.m. (CBS); Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m. (GC); 3-6:30 p.m. (CBS)
Defending champion: Billy Hurley III
U.S. Senior Open
Course: Salem CC, Peabody, Mass.; 6,815 yards, par 70
Purse: $3.75 million (First prize: $675,000)
TV: Thursday-Friday, 2-7 p.m. (FS1); Saturday-Sunday, 1-6 p.m. (Fox)
Defending champion: Gene Sauers
Women’s PGA Championship
Site: Olympia Fields, Ill.
Course: Olympia Fields CC, Olympia Fields, Ill.; 6,588 yards, par 71
Purse: $3.5 million (First prize: $525,000)
TV: Thursday-Friday, 12:30-3:30 p.m. (GC); Saturday-Sunday, 3-6 p.m. (NBC)
Defending champion: Brooke Henderson.