The USGA is touting the U.S. Open as the most comprehensive test in golf. Part of that challenge is the mental game that forces players to adapt quickly to daily changes in how the course is set up.
Golf is not considered a sport of the unknown.
Not like baseball, in which you’re not sure what corner of the plate Felix Hernandez will paint with his wicked changeup. Not like football, in which you’re not sure if a scrambling Russell Wilson is going to beat you with his arm or his legs.
In golf, pretty much everything is laid out right in front of you.
That is, until this week, and this U.S. Open.
Entrants in the U.S. Open this week probably won’t know until Thursday morning whether they’re starting on a par 4 or a par 5 because the first hole at Chambers Bay can be played either way and the USGA might not tell anyone what it will be until that morning.
Elsewhere, the lengths on certain holes can change up to 123 yards from day to day, completely altering how it might play. Certain holes might be set up by the USGA as a drivable par 4 one day, then play 468 yards the next. On the par-3 ninth, the yardage won’t change much, but the teeing ground one day will be 100 feet above the green and another day will be from a completely different angle, and from below the green.
Toss in the variables of wind, the rarity of fine fescue grass and the fact most of these players haven’t seen this course before this week, and there are a lot of unknowns.
And the USGA loves it that way. The USGA no longer is touting the U.S. Open as the toughest test in golf, but rather the most comprehensive. Part of that is the mental game, and forcing players to adapt quickly to different setups.
“We let the players know ahead of time that those are possibilities,” John Bodenhamer, the USGA senior managing director of rules, competition and equipment standards, said of the options at Chambers Bay, “but we think it is important that they don’t really know what that strategy is until the day of the championship, and then they have to react to it.
“It’s part of the comprehensive test — not the toughest test — but the comprehensive test that we try to offer them. They have to decide that day how to react to that setup.”
Jim Furyk didn’t react well in 2012 at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club when the par-5 16th was shortened 99 yards for the final round. He said afterward he was unprepared for that tee shot, and his snap hook led to a bogey and cost him the title.
At Chambers Bay, expect the par-3 15th to change 123 yards from day to day. Teeing grounds are set up at 246 yards, and then half that.
Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, loves the flexibility of Chambers Bay and the options he’ll have in setting up the course differently each day.
“What that really does is challenge the players during practice rounds to learn as much as they can about the golf course,” Davis said.
And if they don’t learn enough during the practice round, then it comes down the adapting at the moment, quite possibly with a championship on the line.
“It’s that we may surprise you with something, some element, and in the heat of the battle, how will you think through it? How will your caddie think through it? Because we really do feel that that’s part of the test,” Davis said.
Much of the course setup will depend on weather and course conditions, and most final decisions won’t come until the morning walkthrough the USGA does each day in setting up the course.
“We can get 7,800 (yards) out of it, but we won’t play that,” Bodenhamer said of the total yardage. “We’ll play between 7,200 and 7,600. If it’s firm and faster, we’ll be closer to 7,600 a little bit, and if it’s wetter and softer, then we’ll be closer to 7,200.”
And then there’s the greatest unknown.
“A lot depends on the wind and which direction the wind comes at,” Bodenhamer said.
“If the wind picks up a lot, that will impact what we do with green speeds. We’re looking at 11½ to 12 (feet on the stimpmeter) right now, but if the wind really picks up we might slow that down a bit. Or we might modify the hole locations a little bit.”
Each morning, at the break of dawn if not earlier, two separate teams of USGA and Chambers Bay officials walk either the front nine or the back nine to make final determinations on teeing grounds and hole locations for that day, with the day’s forecasted weather playing a big role. That’s when the final decision is expected to be made on whether No. 1 or No. 18 will play as a par 5, whether No. 10 or No. 16 might be moved up to a drivable par 4 along with No. 12, and just how long the various par 3s will play.
“Mike has in his mind a game plan as to what he wants to do now with No. 1 and No. 18, on what might be drivable par 4s and what he’s going to do on No. 9 with the teeing grounds,” Bodenhamer said.
The ultimate goal is the comprehensive test the USGA wants to provide. There is the mental side of being able to think and adapt quickly. And there’s the physical side of that demanding walk around Chambers Bay every day.
As far as hitting the golf ball, the USGA is interested in finding out more than just who has the best ball flight, but also who best controls the roll of the ball.
“That’s the way we set golf courses up, so when the ball lands on the ground you have to think about how it’s going to run out, both from the teeing grounds and into the putting greens.” Bodenhamer said. “That’s what makes it so interesting.”
Just one more unknown element of Chambers Bay.