A bad day at the office

Saturday 16th June was not a good day at the office for the USGA. The Phil Mickelson debacle, boorish, boozed up fans and, of course, the golf course. No, not a good day at all.

Mickelson is fascinating. With the greatest of respect to the undoubtedly most estimable Mr Bodenhamer, 6 or 7 running steps and a flick to the leg side do not constitute an inadvertent strike on a moving ball. There is no sentient being in any adjacent universe, never mind this one, that believes the USGA stance.

And Phil himself – I know what I done, I know what it means, I know the penalty and I’ve thought about doing it before. Astonishing. I mean, have the sense to say it was a “moment of madness, I didn’t know what I was up to Guvnor”. To tell anyone who’ll listen that you did it intentionally. Crazed

Very, very sadly everyone knows that had this been Mickey DeMorat, Tyler Duncan or (God forbid) one of the Europeans, a disqualification under Rule 1.2 would have been served on the miscreant. But Phil Mickelson? On his birthday? In New York? The chances of the USGA finding a DQ notice for Phil would be right up with their chances of finding unicorn poo.

What really concerns me here, however, is the strain this places on the integrity of the other players in this field, and in the game generally. I don’t actually believe golfers would stoop to these kind of shenanigans; we have too much respect for the traditions of the game. But nonetheless the door is open now. If the USGA don’t disqualify for conduct unbecoming, then you get in a similar situation just do the same thing. ‘cos you can make the 2 shots up later. Precedent established.

What is it with all the microphones? If you don’t want us to hear players swear then don’t stick a mic up their bum. If you are going to put mics everywhere then don’t keep apologising for their language. They are human beings under huge stress. We get it. So DJ on the putting green and Poults in the 18th fairway – fair play to you guys, you said exactly what the rest of us would have said.

Wasn’t it good to see Phoenix come to town. At the US Open too. OK, look, I love all that jazz around the 16th down there. ONCE a year it is great fun and the players clearly love it. However, another disadvantage of microphones everywhere is we TV viewers get to hear the abuse being hurled, especially at non-Americans. You could clearly identify where the on-course hospitality was sited.

What was ugly and unnecessary were the “USA” chants directed at Ian Poulter, the Ryder Cup references and cheering each time something went awry for him, equally for Stenson and Rose. Kudos to Brooks Koepka for having nowt to do with it. Sure, the crowd enjoyed seeing everyone struggle, but it was much more abusive towards the foreigners. Brookline-esq, one might say. A proper look for the international viewer of the impact of Trump-led America on its attitude to the rest of the world – we know this isn’t true of Americans with a balanced view (there are other countries), but it was a fascinating glimpse of his heartland voter.

So, the golf course. Let me say right up front I don’t believe the USGA wanted this to happen. Absolutely the reverse; 2004 hangs around their necks like a noose. You look at the set-up on TV. Big wide fairways. Yes, very heavy rough, but if a top Pro misses a fairway 40 yards wide then there should be a penalty. I’m not a top Pro and if I missed a target that big I’d expect to be in the shit. Where I play I’d actually be off the golf course on a number of holes.

The problems are around the green end of affairs. Shinnecock greens are raised above the surrounding fairways. That is a design style you see on courses built when the ball was run into the target. They were built when green speeds were significantly lower than is the modern norm. The modern professional player rarely has to deal with anything like it.

So there are course management issues. Pros play a point to point through the air game. “Its 165 front, pin is 18 on; ball will roll out 4 yards after pitching, so carry it 179” and the guys are good enough to do that. Shinnecock in the wind is not a point to point golf course. It’s all about feel and improvisation, and most don’t have it. Not because they’re not great players, it’s because they don’t need to have it. So for the 179 shot on a hard running course in the wind they pull out a 7-iron and whack it up in the air; I, after 40 years of playing seaside golf, take out a 4-iron, hit it 20 feet in the air and run it in the last 40 yards – but I don’t play for pay and am willing to risk the bounce which I understand is part of the game. Pros see that bounce as “unfair”.

There is a more insidious trend here, however, one which speaks directly to the future of our game both as a spectator sport and as a recreation.

This is not the first time this has happened in a Major this year.

Think back to Georgia in April. Because we all subconsciously understand that Augusta has daft, stupid green complexes set up at daft, stupid speeds everyone accepted the carnage in the early round there as just normal. But the truth of it is we only got a playable, watchable tournament after it absolutely pissed down with rain and softened the course up. Without that rain what we saw Saturday afternoon at Shinnecock would have been our TV viewing in April.

I know this is the same old song, but stop – if a driver goes 300 yards and an 8-iron 160, then the 460-yard par 4 which used to be demanding is now a drive and flick hole. That is the length you find a lot of tournament venue par 4s play, or 20 yards either side of it. Put an 8-iron in the hands of a tournament professional and the ball will rain down from 160 yards in a 15-foot diameter circle and stop on a sixpence. How are you going to protect your golf course from being torn to shreds, assuming, as it seems most tournament directors do, that par should have some significance as a marker of achievement.

The answer is pretty obvious; you prevent the ball from stopping on a sixpence. That is achieved in two ways. Greens with the constitution of concrete and the toughest hole locations you can find.

When the weather intervenes and all that goes too far you get Saturday 16th June at Shinnecock.

If that 460-yard par 4 was still a drive and 4 or 5-iron you don’t need concrete greens and 12 on the stimp. Then you don’t get stupidities like Shinnecock, or for that matter Augusta.  It just needs the ball to go 10% less far. The longer players still have their advantage, but the good little ’un retains their chance by being better with the irons. We’re losing that. Fast.

We all know what to do to get our game back. It’s having the will. We have to get past out-dated concepts like playing the same gear and playing the same courses. We have to accept that bifurcation already exists between the elite game and the recreational game. Accept it and embrace it. Look at the sports that have already done so. And learn

Or what you saw on Saturday June 16th – Mickelson, fan abuse and ridiculous shot outcomes – will become the stock in trade of Championship golf.

Time for the Royal and Ancient to step up. Carnoustie or Carnasty; your choice