The conditions make the match — lessons from the 2017 US Open

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The U.S. Open is generally considered the toughest test in professional golf. Along with the pressure, the male-centric holiday adorning the ultimate day of the competition, and the stacked field, the course occupies the front-and-center billing. The course is almost always what makes the U.S. Open so dastardly, and that comes from specific and meticulous intentions on behalf of the host course and the USGA.

This year? Not so much… But first, a little history lesson.

The U.S. Open is supposed to be the toughest tournament of the year. Scores are expected to be high. If there’s only one or two players under par, that’s a win for the Association. In 1973, after Johnny Miller smashed the final round into oblivion with a closing 63 to take the tournament title at Oakmont (see, the courses are so famous and synonymous with the tournaments they host that we quote the winners by year and course),  the USGA wanted a course correction back toward the much, much harder.

In 1974, “USGA president Sandy Tatum presided over what became known as ‘The Massacre at Winged Foot,’ which Hale Irwin won with a score of 7-over par,” Jason Sobel wrote for ESPN. “When questioned about the organization’s dastardly setup, Tatum simply replied, ‘We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world. We’re trying to identify them.'”

The exact opposite of a massacre happened this year. There were 31 players under par. The winner, Brooks Koepka, posted a smooth 16-under to take the tournament win by 4 strokes… Not exactly the riveting drama down the stretch we’d all like to say (but kudos to the young man for the well-deserved victory).

So, what happened? Put simply, the conditions made the match.

One of the tactics U.S. Open courses routinely employ is to take two par-5’s from the course, downgrade them to really long par-4’s, and decrease the total score to par for the round to 70. Next, parch the greens — deny them water for days or weeks before the tournament, almost to the point of killing the grass. That way, the greens are extra-firm and super fast when the tournament comes to town. And, for courses designed like European links courses, you better pray for wind.

The opposite of two of those things happened. Rain softened the fairways and greens in the buildup to the tournament, and the players really only had to contend with stiff winds on one of the four days. On a course defined by difficult wind conditions, when the primary obstacle is absent, elite players are going to go low on the scoreboard.

For many courses, conditions are under your control to a point. If it rains, greens are going to slow — there’s not much you can do about that. If it’s calm, you course will become likewise easier. But, there are a few things that are within your control to better control for scoring outcomes.

  • Placement and size of traps (bigger/deeper usually = harder)

  • Width and contour of fairways (longer, narrower and hillier usually = harder)

  • Placement of holes in relation to water (more water usually = harder)

  • Slope and speed of greens (more is almost always harder)

Those are big ticket items. Yes, you can adjust each of these to an extent, but to really make a change on one of these verticals often requires a pretty major overhaul. A final way you can really up the difficult of a round, though?

Hole location.

I’m not telling you anything you probably don’t already know — of course harder hole locations leads to higher round scores. But, do you know how to ensure you’re placing your holes in the absolute hardest place for players to approach and sink?

If you’re using ezLocator’s software suite you would… The U.S. Open relies on an army of golfing professionals to coax the hardest playing conditions out of America’s premiere courses, and even they get it wrong sometimes. Having a software platform designed to help determine the ideal course setup for scoring outcomes can really help elevate the challenge and fun of the courses you oversee. As such, it only makes sense to join with a technology solutions partner that can help you give your players the best your course has to offer.