ERIN, Wis. — I want the U.S. Open back.
I want a U.S. Open where fairways are the width of hotel corridors and greens are the consistency of trampoline webbing. I want a U.S. Open where some poor person in the production truck is forced to hover his finger over the mute button all day, because players can’t stop cussing about their misfortunes. I want a U.S. Open where pars are good scores and bogeys still aren’t all that bad.
I don’t want this, whatever it is.
No, scratch that: I just don’t want it this week.
The first three rounds at Erin Hills have been immensely entertaining. The leaderboard is littered with talented young stars, each of them trying to break through for a first career major victory. There have been whimsical comparisons to the old Greater Milwaukee Open, but even that isn’t fair. Let’s face it: If they changed out the signage and television graphics overnight and called this the PGA Championship, we’d all be pretty happy with the result.
But it’s not. It’s the U.S. Open. This is supposed to be the toughest test in golf, but it’s like the teacher just gave all the students an answer key.
In Saturday’s third round alone, Justin Thomas posted a 9-under 63, matching the lowest score in major championship history and breaking the lowest score in relation to par at the U.S. Open. Patrick Reed posted an astonishing eight birdies — and didn’t even lead the field. Fifteen of the top 16 on the leaderboard broke par.
What in the name of Johnny Miller is going on around here?
Back in 1974, one year after Miller famously posted a final-round 63 to win at Oakmont, USGA president Sandy Tatum presided over what became known as “The Massacre at Winged Foot,” which Hale Irwin won with a score of 7-over par. When questioned about the organization’s dastardly setup, Tatum simply replied, “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We’re trying to identify them.”
That has always held as the standard company line, but there’s no question the USGA has relished its role as the wicked stepmother of the four major championships. Since 1990, the winning score has ranged from 271 on the low end to 285 on the high end, save for Rory McIlroy‘s 268 in 2011 at a Congressional course so waterlogged it became an outlier.
It’s what we’ve come to expect, an annual tradition where families join in the living room each Father’s Day and delight in the world’s best golfers resembling their own feeble attempts on the course.
OK, so a few of those best golfers still looked feeble. Dustin Johnson, McIlroy and Jason Day — the world’s top-three players — all missed the cut for various reasons. But their futility only accentuates a crowded list of contenders in Sunday’s final nine pairings that won’t have a past major win among it — players who will each start an unfathomable 6-under or better.
Even Hollywood understands this. In the classic film “Tin Cup,” the protagonist, Roy McAvoy, tells fellow U.S. Open contender David Simms, “Keep shooting pars, a–h—!” When Simms answers, “I’ll take 18 of ’em, all day long,” McAvoy responds, “Do it and I’ll own you.”
If they were playing this week, he’d be right. Even par, for so long the scoring standard at this event, has been good enough for just a share of 43rd place so far. Instead, Brian Harman leads at 12-under; Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood are 11-under; and Rickie Fowler is 10-under — numbers never before seen on a leaderboard at this tournament. Granted, it’s the first par-72 in a quarter century, but even the total scores are lower than usual.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem, because there’s a domino effect that involves many of them. Here’s one: After two inglorious years filled with justified criticism that has impugned the organization’s reputation, the USGA didn’t want to face another firing squad, so it erred on the side of caution when setting up its brand-new venue. Here’s another: Even the longest course in major championship history can’t suppress this generation of big hitters, especially with benign weather conditions and soft greens.
All of it leads to one important observation that normally can’t be stated at this event: Players are way too comfortable on the course.
“The U.S. Open is supposed to be very uncomfortable,” Thomas said after a round that included nine birdies and a closing eagle. “It’s kind of what the USGA and U.S. Open is known for — making you kind of hate yourself and hate golf and just really struggle out there. I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
There aren’t many players who hate themselves this week. And that’s a damn shame.
Someone will win this week, someone who makes a bunch of birdies on the back nine or maybe eagles the final hole. He’ll be called the U.S. Open champion, but this really isn’t the U.S. Open.
No, the U.S. Open should be mind-numbingly challenging. It’s designed to disturb the world’s best golfers. It’s supposed to be the most grueling four days of golf they’ll play all year.
I want that U.S. Open back.