Staff lessons from the U.S. Open: Phil's folly, setting the record (books) straight, a golf train and more

Staff lessons from the U.S. Open: Phil’s folly, setting the record (books) straight, a golf train and more

The 118th U.S. Open finished on Sunday night with Brooks Koepka repeating as champ, but the week leading up to Sunday’s final putt was as eventful as ever (right Phil?). Our staff reflects on its most memorable moments in our lessons from Shinnecock Hills.

SORRY? SORRY FOR WHAT!?
By Jessica Marksbury

In recent years, it seems as though it’s become more en vogue than ever to publicly criticize the USGA. Billy Horschel’s harsh assessment of the condition of Chambers Bay’s greens was followed by the DJ rules debacle at Oakmont. Last year at Erin Hills, people sniffed that the course was too easy, while this year at Shinnecock, the consensus had been that it’s too hard — especially after Saturday’s massacre.

The complaining was in fact so pervasive during the third round that USGA executive director Mike Davis was forced to respond. “We would admit there were aspects of this setup that went too far,” he told Joe Buck and Paul Azinger during the Fox telecast.

In response, the course was watered on Saturday evening, Sunday hole locations were re-assessed, and look what happened in the final round: Players went on a birdie binge, with Tommy Fleetwood making eight to match Johnny Miller’s famous final-round 63.

While the reset certainly made things exciting, I can’t help but wonder why the USGA is so eager to apologize, especially when its stated intention is to present “golf’s ultimate test.” The organization has made a habit of pushing host courses to the razor’s edge of playability — a dangerous endeavor. Sometimes they cross the line. Does that mean they should stop doing everything they can to make the U.S. Open as difficult a test as possible? I certainly don’t think so.

At the British Open, the luck of the draw can be hugely decisive when it comes to weather, and everyone readily accepts that fact. Isn’t that essentially what happened at Shinnecock on Saturday? Afternoon wind made the course much more difficult for the late wave of players. It’s unfortunate when that happens, but that’s just tournament golf. It shouldn’t be something that requires an apology. For one week a year, can we just agree that the USGA will (and should) do whatever it needs to do to make the course as hard as possible? No complaining, no excuses. Count me in.

APOLOGIES, J.D.
By Sean Zak

Have you heard of J.D. Tucker? You may have. He’s the guy who couldn’t handle Myopia Hunt back in 1898 during the first round of the U.S. Open.

Allegedly.

The year 1898 was the fourth U.S Open, and things were different then. Golf was just catching on in America. No, it wasn’t broadcast on TV. It was barely in the newspapers. Maybe that was the problem.

Either way, J.D. Tucker allegedly shot 157 in the first round of the 1898 U.S. Open. How crazy is that!? One-five-seven — 57 strokes more than his second round. At least that’s what the USGA record book would have told you at the beginning of the week. The truth is, J.D. Tucker did not shoot 157. Thank goodness, right?

I first read of this fictional 157 a few weeks ago while fact-checking a golf book. A deep dive into 19th century newspapers left me with a question: would a 157 actually go uncovered? I was thirsty for a spicy dialogue from some late 1800s sports scribe, but J.D.’s name was nowhere to be found. Not in the headlines and not in the Chicago Tribune or New York Times game stories. Only when I turned to the Boston Globe did I find a two-round leaderboard tucked into the sports section. Willie Anderson was on top. Tucker was near the bottom — 107.

Shortly after I brought it to their attention, the USGA politely acknowledged their mistake. Unfortunately, the internet was already in motion. Thanks to Scott Gregory’s brutal 92 Thursday, many wondered: What was the worst score ever recorded in a U.S. Open? That one error made its way to countless outlets. Golf Digest, Sports Illustrated, USA Today. CBS Sports, the New York Post and yes, even GOLF.com had it wrong, too. The Telegraph had it wrong as far back as 2008, so yeah, J.D.’s been rolling around in that grave for at least a decade.

The collective opinion of those reports was simple: “Well, Mr. Gregory, it could be worse. At least you’re not J.D. Tucker.” Well, it’s time we rectify that. The highest rounds in U.S. Open history are actually a pair of 114s. The perpetrators were C. Thompson and the perfectly named George Parr.

THE INVISIBLE HAZARD OF SHINNECOCK
By Joe Passov

The Scots have an old saying, “Tis nae wind, nae golf.” Well, there’s wind, and there’s Shinnecock Hills wind. The latter blew the U.S. Open chances of a dozen top stars right across Great Peconic Bay. Thursday’s pre-dawn breezes proved unexpectedly strong, so much so that the USGA hosed down the greens and changed several of the planned hole locations. No matter. The day started as a disaster for many of the game’s best, and only got worse from there. Wind, or what architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. calls “golf’s invisible hazard” sent scores soaring. Phil Mickelson shot 77. Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth posted 78s. Jason Day returned a 79 and Rory McIlroy skied to an 80. This was a breeze-fueled massacre.

Principally, Thursday’s gusts, which topped out at 30 mph around 2 pm, made an already demanding set of targets even tougher to find. Shinnecock’s greens were firm and fast, and approaches needed to be superb, not just good or average, to find and hold the putting surface. They required the greatest degree of accuracy since Oakmont in 2016, and perhaps Pebble Beach in 2010. The differences are that Oakmont dished out little wind, and Pebble’s greens and surrounds weren’t as severely canted. Not only did Shinny’s players need to be precise, but they needed to flight the ball perfectly, not an easy thing to do. Marginal shots would fail to alight on the green, and trickle away into severe trouble.

By Saturday, the USGA once again was caught napping as winds more fierce than had been forecast transformed the USGA’s stern setup into a house of horrors, as demonstrated by Phil Mickelson’s hockey exhibition and Zach Johnson’s frustrated wail, “the USGA has lost the golf course.” Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, admitted as much, at least in spots. The takeaway? Stop tricking up Shinnecock Hills with parched greens and suspect hole locations. The invisible hazard is all this old girl needs to test the best.

A SOCIAL CALLING
By Tim Reilly

Being on a golf course isn’t always the best spot for golf media. I learned that the hard way on Saturday afternoon, as I took a little stroll around Shinnecock during what I expected to be the lull period of the day. But seemingly out of nowhere, all hell broke loose when Phil decided to treat the 13th green like his local mini-golf course.  

As our social media editor, I was suddenly left scrambling with shoddy WiFi as I attempted to keep our loyal audience updated with the latest happenings. My stroll around Shinnecock quickly turned into a speed-walking adventure to get back to the media center.  

This occurred right around the time Dustin Johnson was getting ready to tee off. People probably thought I was hustling to get in good position to see the World No. 1 begin his round. Nope, I was just trying to get in prime position to fire out a tweet from the World’s No. 1 golf twitter account.

WHAT’S IN STORE FOR TIGER TOMORROW?
By Jeff Ritter

I don’t know when Tiger Woods will play golf in New York again. Hadn’t even thought about it, really, until Friday afternoon. That’s when the sun popped out and Woods trudged up the hill to the green on the 9th hole, just behind his playing partners, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. Woods was about to wrap up both his second round and his week on Long Island. Plugged into my ear was a speaker connected to a small radio that hung around my neck. The radios were issued gratis to media members and many fans, and they were tuned to a Sirius XM radio station that aired wall-to-wall golf.

As Tiger strode forward and the crowd began to cheer, I turned up the dial as one of the play-by-play guys – not sure whom – said happily, “Listen to this crowd. They don’t know when they’ll see Woods again.” I’m certain the broadcaster meant that they didn’t know if Woods was going to make or miss the cut (he missed it by two shots), but in that moment I heard something more ominous. Sure, Woods’s comeback is – to borrow one of his old saws – progressing nicely, but where will he be in two years, when the U.S. Open lands at Winged Foot, just north of New York City? Or heck, what about next spring, when the PGA Championship shifts to May and to Bethpage Black, just down the road from Shinnecock? Woods should play each of those. So, he’ll be back. But what if he’s not? That broadcaster’s words got me thinking about Woods’s four back surgeries, his old Achilles tear, his knee problems, the mugshot. I whipped out my cellphone and snapped a quick pic of Woods ascending the hill. It’s not a great photo, but I’m glad I did it. In golf, as in life, nothing is guaranteed.

COME ON RIDE THE (GOLF) TRAIN
By Josh Berhow

Just south of Times Square, where the fog still lingers in the wee hours of the morning, traffic into Penn Station is picking up. By the east entrance, down a few flights, past the two men sleeping on the stairs and around the corner from the Dunkin’ Donuts, the golf fans wait. Lots of them.

A sea of logoed polos, dress shorts, khakis, sun dresses, visors, hats and shades waited for the first train out of the city at 6:25 a.m. on U.S. Open Saturday, and at 6:28 a.m. the gallery funneled to a set of stairs en route to Track 17 and Shinnecock Hills — with a quick transfer at the Jamaica stop — and the 118th U.S. Open.

Commuting is never the most thrilling way to spend one’s time. But this wasn’t exactly your evening rush hour with suits, briefcases and laptops. At 6:44 a.m., two minutes behind schedule, the train pushed forward. For giddy golf fans, the day officially began. Beer cans cracked open. Parents passed bagels. Twentysomethings that could’ve passed for extras in Wolf of Wall Street chatted in seats in the corners. The train was buzzing.

One girl pleaded to her boyfriend, “I wanna watch Tony Finau!” He rolled his eyes. “What?!” she said.

A man in his 50s planned his attack: “Mickelson…” he read, looking down at his pamphlet. “…11:30. Johnson … 3:10.”

One couple left its Philadelphia home at 3 a.m. that morning. They said they worried about being away from their dog for so long, but Ol’ Betsy got an extra scoop of food (and was thrilled!).

Across the aisle, a loud talker with a high voice. He discussed — sometimes to no one in particular — Augusta renovations, Bethpage Black’s setup, Pebble Beach’s Open defense, the Masters merchandise tent, the evolution of golf on TV, the sport’s 2019 schedule tweaks and, believe me, so much more.

The train’s capacity was pushed to its limits at each stop, as many frustrated fans remained stuck on the platforms, left without a seat or even a place to stand. At 9:14, 11 stops after Penn Station, the conductor’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen. Your attention please — Shinnecock Hills is next. Shinnecock Hills is next.”

They cheered. They clapped. Some opened another beer. At 9:21, the golf train had arrived.

MICKELSON ON MY MIND
By Alan Bastable

I can’t stop thinking about Phil. Can you? With one stunning, childish swipe of the putter, the most popular player in the game (sorry, Rickie) turned our national championship on its head. Sure, Brooks Koepka made history Sunday under glorious East End skies, but this Open, through my own personal lens anyway, will be remembered for Phil’s fiasco on the 13th green on Saturday, his feisty, unapologetic explanation that followed and the debate that it ignited in golf circles and beyond.

His wife Amy kinda-sorta apologized for her husband after his Sunday round (“a good man who had a bad moment,” she told me as he signed autographs), which tells you that Phil does feel at least a twinge of regret. But, gosh, it would have been nice to hear it from the man himself. This is not meant as a knock on Koepka but I can tell that the press was far more eager to talk to Mickelson on Sunday than they were the guy who had just won his second consecutive United States Open. There were just so many layers to the story: shock, absurdity, anger, hilarity, frustration, despondency, revenge. It was like something out of Greek tragedy, only Phil declined to provide us the study guide.

On Friday afternoon, before the madness, I walked Shinnecock’s front nine with Mickelson. The voluble New York galleries were so in his corner that it was easy to forget that two other giants of the game — Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth — were playing alongside him.

“Workday, Phil!” one fan yelled from the side of the 1st fairway, alluding to one of Mickelson’s sponsors. “Go to work!” Others serenaded him with happy birthdays (Mickelson turned 48 Saturday). As he walked from the 4th green to the next tee box, a woman in a purple sleeveless shirt leaned over the gallery line and thrust her arms in the air. “C’monnnnn, Phil,” she hollered in a Long Island accent so thick it would make Billy Joel blush. “You still have it in you! C’monnnnnn!”

His fans still believe he can win this tournament — he’ll take his 28th shot at it a year from now in Pebble Beach — but after the petulance he exhibited last week you have to wonder if Mickelson feels the same.

IF THE SHIRT FITS…
By Michael Bamberger

There have been five U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills, and as statements of fashion trends, you’d have to say the 1896 and the 2018 events make the strongest impressions. In ’96, the golfers wore fine woolen suits with vests and ties, and they — at least the gentlemen amateurs among them — looked like they could go from the home green to afternoon tea in the Stanford White clubhouse without skipping a beat. (The pros, in that era, who were really glorified caddies, were not welcome in the clubhouse.) This year, many of the pros, particularly those bearing Nike swooshes on their chests, wore glorified polyester T-shirts, made in China, with not enough cloth to even hold a tie, not that that was remotely a consideration. As for the clubhouse, they didn’t use and didn’t seem to care. A giant white tent alongside the driving range served as the players’ locker room and it had everything a fella could want, including a barber shop and dry-cleaning services. I have never understood how some men will send their golf shirts out for dry cleaning, but they do. I like the feel of a cotton golf shirt after it’s been washed hot and tumbled dry.

I have typed this next part too often, but I also like the traditional golf shirt of yesteryear, with a chest pocket, hard collar and four-button full placket. (I nod here to a friend, also born in the spring of 1960, for that last phrase. I didn’t know the term full placket until he used it the other day.) Cotton is more expensive than polyester and a pocket and a full placket requires more cloth, too. Harder for the manufacturer to make money that way, but there you go. These old-school golf shirts are now hard to find, although a company called Criquet in Austin does make them, albeit with some nods to modernity.

You can imagine my surprise when one day, a week or so before the Open, a package arrived at my home: a hard-collar, full-placket golf shirt from the 1986 U.S. Open, still in its original wrapping. It’s a navy blue shirt with horizontal sky blue, white and red stripes, “MADE IN U.S.A.” from “100% LISLE COTTON,” according to its collar tags. What lisle cotton is I do not know but Brooks Koepka was not wearing it at Shinnecock Hills. This gifted shirt didn’t have a pocket. Still, a fine shirt and a nice surprise. It was a Pickering shirt made by the Kimberton Co., RIP. What was then a size large, by the way, is now a medium. Vanity sizing.

I got this next part straight from Arnold Palmer, in 1999. Years ago, when Kimberton was going out of business, he bought the company’s remaining stock of size large hard-collar golf shirts and had his umbrella logo sewn into them. He showed me his stockpile one day in a garage in the California desert. Enough shirts to last the rest of his lifetime.

Anyway, I gave the shirt a wash (can’t wear them out of the wrapper) and wore it to the course on Tuesday of U.S. Open week. Several people complimented me on it! My colleague Lucas O’Neill said, “Is that shirt actually from 1986?” I hadn’t noticed, but embroidered in red above the club’s logo, which notes the year of the club’s founding (1891), there was this: 1986 U.S. Open. On Father’s Day that year, Roy Floyd hoisted the winner’s trophy in a crisp white cotton golf shirt with a full placket and a hard collar. He wore if far, far better than I, but I enjoy my near-daily nod, courtesy of my hard-collar shirt collection, to wooden woods, steel shafts, no-stand carry bags and a simpler game. Now I have one more shirt in the collection.

Jim, thanks!