If the United States Golf Association ran football, there would be days the goalposts would be moved up into the corner endzone seats. And pitched at the jaunty angle of a cool kid’s cap.
If the USGA took over baseball, outfield fences would be built like bellows and move in and out according to that day’s starting pitchers.
Heaven knows how LeBron James would react when the USGA, new lords of basketball, took the air out of the ball at the half when it was determined he had scored too much in the first 24 minutes.
But the USGA is in partial charge of golf, and specifically runs the U.S. Open, which means that this major more than any other is subject to a kind of caprice that would be laughably inappropriate in any other sport.
It is with this event more than any other even in golf where the set-up is the story. Yes, more than even the Masters, where every course change is examined so very critically, as if they were adding a beauty mark to the Mona Lisa.
Saturday, it was only Phil Mickelson’s melt-down that saved the USGA from a more savage criticism for what it did to Shinnecock Hills in the third round. Having taken its obsession to be the toughest test in golf to the edge and beyond, the USGA put itself in position of affecting the outcome of that round more than the players themselves. After all, galleries pay to watch golfers, not initials, perform.
Some viewers actually like the peculiar kind of misery a USGA set-up can inflict upon the pampered class of professional golf. There is more than enough room in this sport for a little degree of difficulty.
And normally, I consider golfers’ complaints to ring hollow. I don’t care about the gourmand upset with the quality of his caviar or the about the oenophile whose wine did not properly breathe. Why would I care about the bleating of a golfer concerning the deficiencies of the exclusive club he’s playing that week?
But what the USGA put on display Saturday was enough to almost make one feel a twinge of empathy for a golfer.
The set-up was so unfair that players earlier in the day Saturday were for all purposes playing a different, easier course than those who came later. That two players who had launched early, tied for 45th, could rise to the top of the leaderboard, was irrefutable proof that the USGA had crossed a line.
So irrefutable that even the USGA couldn’t refute it.
“I think that we would say that parts of this test of golf simply were too tough,” Mike Davis, the group’s executive director, said.
“We want the U.S. Open to be tough, but we saw some examples late in the day where well executed shots were not only not being rewarded, but in some cases penalized,” he said.
Davis assured all that Sunday would be a fairer test for all. “The message was loud and clear to the grounds staff and to our team that handles the agronomy part of it is that let's slow the course down,” he said Saturday night.
Against that backdrop, the players arrived Sunday to find a good number of pins planted comfortably in the heart of the greens. The suggestion was out there that the day just be about who could tread water. Some actual swimming may be involved.
There is nothing at all wrong with a major championship being decided around par or higher. We haven’t been so numbed by the altered realities of the John Deere Classics of the world that we can’t appreciate a little subsistence golf. Yes, it can be entertaining to watch the fattest cats scramble for their dinner.
But you have to give excellence some chance to breathe.
Sunday, we are glad to report that the USGA got out of the way of its own championship.
Putts fell. Players strutted. Scores plummeted. Fun ensued. Tommy Fleetwood shot 63, and was a little bummed he didn’t go lower.
Shockingly, not a single player complained about the place playing too easily.
Apology accepted, USGA.
Thus we leave Long Island, scattering off in all directions, satisfied that this championship was more about the playing and less about the course condition. And gratified that the USGA is not in charge of air traffic control.