7 Times Golfers Ripped the USGA Over the US Open Golf Course

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USGA Course Setup Philosophy: 'We Try to Make it Hard and Fair'

Colin Montgomerie of Scotland shows his frustration on the ninth hole during the final round of the 2006 US Open Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club
Yep, the US Open can make a guy want to hold his head in his hands, like Colin Montgomerie during the 2006 tournament. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Bashing the USGA for its golf course setups at the U.S. Open? It's an old tradition among the tour pros who "have" to play under the intentionally very tough conditions of a U.S. Open tournament.

As former USGA president David Fay once explained, the organization wants its national championship to "always (be) regarded as the world's toughest golf tournament."

"We try to make it hard and fair," Fay said. "Sometimes you get close to the edge and sometimes you go over the edge."

And when golfers in the U.S. Open feel the USGA has "gone over the edge" in course setup, some of them complain very loudly about it.

But that's just par for the course (or, since we're talking about U.S. Opens here, over-par for the course) at the USGA's tournament. Another former USGA president, Sandy Tatum, was once asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the world's best golfers. "No," Tatum replied, "we're trying to identify them."

Every single year there are at least a few golfers who complain about the U.S. Open golf course and/or the way the USGA has set it up. On the following pages we take a look at some of the most famous examples.

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Chambers Bay, 2015: 'It is a joke'

Sergio Garcia of Spain waits on the ninth green during the first round of the 115th U.S. Open Championship at Chambers Bay on June 18, 2015
Sergio Garcia hated the greens at Chambers Bay. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

There were mutterings of complaints about Chambers Bay almost as soon as some golfers trickled in a couple weeks before the 2015 U.S. Open for early looks.

But Ryan Palmer really got things going after practicing during tournament week: "As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course - not with the way some of the greens are and the pin placements they can put out there. ... It will get a lot of bad press from the players. It is a joke. I don’t understand it. I just don’t know why they would do it."

Once the tournament started, Sergio Garcia wrote on Twitter, "I think a championship of the caliber of US Open deserves better quality green surfaces that we have this week but maybe I'm wrong!" But many of his fellow participants didn't think he was wrong, and said so.

The greens were severely sloped and some hole locations accentuated that. The banks were shaved so that the fescue turfgrass on the green and off the green was, in most places, indistinguishable. And the fescue - a green surface rarely used on American courses - was not the pristine carpet many PGA Tour pros are accustomed to.

But it wasn't just conditioning or hole locations that had golfers grumbling. The way the USGA was alternating between par-4 and par-5 on a couple holes, particularly the 18th, had tongues wagging. Jordan Spieth was caught on a TV microphone telling his caddie that the 18th, playing as a par-4 that day, was "the dumbest hole I've ever played in my life."

Funny thing was, all these complaints were coming despite what was, by U.S. Open standards, some pretty good scoring (at least in the early rounds).

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Pebble Beach, 2010: 'Make everybody look stupid'

Ian Poulter of England reacts to his second chip on the 14th hole during the second round of the 2010 U.S. Open
Ian Poulter wasn't happy with his first chip on the 14th hole; this is how he looked after his second chip. Harry How/Getty Images

The complaints about Pebble Beach Golf Links during the 2010 U.S. Open began with Tiger Woods moaning about the "just awful" greens. Pebble Beach has poa annua greens, which look splotchy, and which get bumpier throughout the day (because poa is a fast-growing grass on sunny days).

Woods had whined about Pebble's greens before. Even after winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 strokes, he stopped playing the PGA Tour Pebble Beach Pro-Am reportedly because he hated those greens.

But the real bashing was reserved for the 14th and 17th greens. The 14th was a par-5 hole whose super-fast, undulating, elevated green was given shaved banks by the USGA, making approach shots and even chips shots difficult. The 17th was a long par-3 whose very small area for hole locations led to what some considered an unfair location on the back portion of the bowl-shaped green.

Ryan Moore said that USGA setups made him "hate golf for about two months."

About the the 14th and 17th holes specifically, Moore said of the USGA: "I feel like instead of difficulty, they just go for trickiness. ... I think they go for a spectacle; they want some hole to draw attention and make everybody look stupid, I guess. It doesn't reward good golf shots like Augusta National does, and I don't understand why you'd have a tournament that doesn't reward good golf shots."

Graeme McDowell won at even-par. Woods was fourth at 3-over and Moore 33rd at 12-over.

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Oakmont, 2007: 'Absolutely dangerous'

Phil Mickelson hits a shot from the rough during the first round of the 2007 U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont Country Club
Phil Mickelson injured a wrist hitting out of the rough at Oakmont during a practice round in 2007; here, he does some weedeating in Round 1 of the US Open that year. Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

At the 2007 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson felt that the very deep, thick rough the USGA had grown at Oakmont Country Club was, literally, dangerous.

Playing practice rounds a couple weeks before the Open, Mickelson hurt his wrist hitting out of that rough. He wore a wrist brace during the two days he played in the tournament itself (he missed the cut).

"It is absolutely dangerous," Mickelson said of that rough. "It's disappointing to dream as a kid about winning the U.S. Open and spend all this time getting ready for it and have the course setup injure you."

Mickelson referred to the "carnage" happening during the tournament, referring to high scores. But, in fact, he wasn't the only golfer who hurt a wrist or feared doing so in that rough.

Future PGA Tour pro Richard Lee, then a 15-year-old amateur, withdrew after spraining a wrist. Boo Weekley called the rough "very dangerous," and Stephen Ames spoke up to agree.

But somehow, nobody's career was ended, and Angel Cabrera wound up winning the tournament at 5-over.

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Shinnecock Hills, 2004: 'When are they going to grow a head?'

The water team douses the seventh green during the final round of the 2004 U. S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, June 20, 2004
Shinnecock Hills' 7th green got so dry and crusty during the 2004 US Open final round that grounds crew began watering it ... during tournament play. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Image

At Shinnecock Hills during the 2004 U.S. Open, every player in the field thought the USGA let the greens "get away from them." Meaning they didn't put enough water on the greens early, so that late the greens were virtually dead - dry, crusty, extremely fast to the point of being unfair.

Not a single golfer broke par in the final round. More than a third failed to break 80. The seventh green in particular - a par-3 - had players struggling to keep chip shots on the surface.

Jerry Kelly was the most outspoken golfer in the field, asking of the USGA setup crew, "When are they going to grow a head? I have no idea."

"I think they're ruining the game," Kelly said. "They're ruining the tournament. This isn't golf. Period."

Cliff Kresge had a question for media and fans: "Do you guys like us looking like a bunch of idiots out there?"

(Actually, periodic fan surveys on the topic show that more fans enjoy watching pros struggle with a difficult golf course than watching them rip up easy courses. Probably because the former is much rarer than the latter.)

But two guys did finish below par: Retief Goosen won at 4-under and Phil Mickelson was 2-under. Kelly finished 40th at 17-over and Kresge was 62nd at 24-over.

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Olympic Club, 1998: 'Ridiculous'

A general view of the 18th hole during the 1998 U.S. Open Championships on the 6,797-yard, par-70 Lake Course at The Olympic Club
The back left pin position on No. 18 at Olympic Club that created such havoc in the 1998 US Open. Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

What did it take to get Payne Stewart to call the setup "bordering on ridiculous" at the 1998 U.S. Open? A back-left hole location on Olympic Club's 18th hole during the second round.

Here are some examples of what happened that led the USGA to admit it was a big mistake to put the cup there:

  • Stewart's 8-foot birdie putt, lightly tapped, missed the cup and kept doing downhill ... 35 feet down the hill.
  • Tom Lehman's 4-putt included an uphill putt that horseshoed around the back of the cup and rolled 9 feet back down the hill to Lehman.
  • Kirk Triplett's long uphill putt stopped short of the hole ... wobbled ... and started rolling right back towards him. Triplett was so disgusted that as the ball got to him, he jabbed it with his putter, pushing it into the green and stopping it. He was given a 2-stroke penalty. Had he made the cut, he would have been disqualified for a serious breach.

Those are just a few examples.

"The way the USGA set that hole up is unfair," Lehman said. "All the guys I talked to feel the same way."

In this case, the USGA even agreed. The slope was softened in later U.S. Opens played at Olympic, and that hole location not used again.

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Winged Foot, 1974: 'Dumbfounded by how difficult it was'

18th green during the final round of the 2006 US Open Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club
Winged Foot in 2006, when it was also an extremely tough US Open venue. Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Golfers knew they were in trouble at the 1974 U.S. Open when they saw (or heard about) Jack Nicklaus putting a ball from the back half of the green right off the front of the No. 1 green. Nicklaus, it is said, turned white, appeared dumbfounded, and mumbled to himself as he walked to his next putt about never having seen such fast greens.

And that wasn't even the toughest part of the Winged Foot setup! It was the deep, thick rough that got every player's attention. The USGA's Sandy Tatum, responsible for the setup, told Golf Digest, "Players were taking members of the media out onto the golf course and dropping balls into the rough and saying, ‘try hitting that.' "

Johnny Miller - who many of the players blamed for the setup, since he'd shot a final-round 63 at Oakmont the year before ("It was a typical knee-jerk reaction by the USGA," Tom Weiskopf said) - called the rough "ridiculous."

This tournament became known as "The Massacre at Winged Foot." Hale Irwin was the winner at 7-over. Irwin later said, "We were all dumbfounded by how difficult it was. It was easily the most difficult golf course I had ever seen."

When Nicklaus was asked about the finishing holes, he replied, "The last 18 of them are very difficult." Nicklaus finished at 14-over.

This is the tournament, by the way, where Tatum's famous dictum about "trying to identify" the best players was uttered.

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Hazeltine, 1970: 'Plow it up and start over'

Dave Hill of the United States during the final day of the 1977 Ryder Cup Matches at Royal Lytham and St Annes Golf Club on September 29, 1977
Dave Hill (with caddie during 1977 Ryder Cup) thought Hazeltine was more "cow pasture" than golf course in 1970. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Hazeltine National Golf Club was only eight years old at the 1970 U.S. Open, a baby of a golf course built on farmland and sitting (at that time) pretty much alone about 30 miles outside of Minneapolis, Minn.

Although the 1966 U.S. Women's Open was played there, it was virtually unknown to PGA Tour pros. The early reviews were not good: Jack Nicklaus, a couple weeks before the U.S. Open, said the course "lacks definition."

Once the tournament actually started, Nicklaus liked it even less, dubbing it "Blindman's Bluff" because of all the blind shots and doglegs. Nicklaus opened with an 81 and said to the media afterward, "Pardon me while I throw up."

In another reference to the doglegs, Bob Rosburg said, "It's like playing in a kennel."

But it was irascible Dave Hill - who once got into a fistfight with J.C. Snead on the driving range prior to a tournament - who took the biggest shots.

Hill said that course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. must have had the blueprints upside down when he built it. Asked what he thought the golf course needed, Hill replied, "80 acres of corn and a few cows to be a good farm. They ruined a good farm when they built this."

"They should plow it up and start over," Hill said.

And you know what? Eventually that's pretty much what they did. In 1978 RTJ's son Rees Jones rebuilt the course. And Hazeltine National has hosted multiple majors since.

But in 1970, even though he hated the course, Hill had a plan: If he won, he would drive a local farmer's tractor to the trophy presentation. Alas, that spectacle never happened. Tony Jacklin won by seven shots. But Hill did finish second.

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