Close your eyes and think about the U.S. Open.
What comes to mind?
Jack’s 1-iron at Pebble Beach.
The “Massacre at Winged Foot” in 1974.
Payne Stewart putting his hands on Phil Mickelson’s face at Pinehurst.
Dustin Johnson’s 6-iron on the 72nd hole at Oakmont.
The game’s major championships are defined not just by the players who win or lose them. They have their own identities and that’s what the USGA is intent on enhancing with the announcement last week that Pinehurst No. 2 will host five U.S. Opens through 2047. (For context, Tiger Woods will be 71 then.)
No. 2, with its churning greens complexes and beautifully scruffy challenges, has been designated an “anchor site” for the U.S. Open going forward, meaning it will host the national championship every five or six years until the middle of this century.
It won’t be alone. There will be other anchor sites – Oakmont and Pebble Beach are likely to have the same designation – now that the USGA has decided to build its biggest championship around a group of core classic courses.
The idea came from talking with players and fans about what they want the U.S. Open to be and the message came through – play the best places more often.
“We want to go to fewer places more frequently,” Craig Annis, chief brand officer for the USGA, said.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be variety to U.S. Open venues. If the anchor sites host six championships among themselves every 12 years, that leaves six more Open sites to be selected in that window.
That leaves plenty of room for Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills, Torrey Pines and Los Angeles Country Club, Oakland Hills and the Country Club. Maybe Chambers Bay gets another shot. Maybe Erin Hills does.
If there is a primary group of courses that host the U.S. Open every five or six years, maybe there is a secondary group that hosts the championship every 10 or 15 years. That way great places aren’t shut out but the membership doesn’t have to deal with the interruption very often. As rewarding as hosting a U.S. Open can be, it also disrupts life for months.
Part of the feedback the USGA received from players when they were asked about U.S. Open sites was they want to play the most iconic places. Where they win may not be as important as winning itself but the venue adds texture to the title.
This shift in strategy may be an outgrowth of recent U.S. Opens at Chambers Bay and Erin Hills, two new places that looked and felt different from previous venues. That’s because they were different.
Chambers Bay caught a tough break with the greens going bad and, combined with its provocative design and the arrival of Fox Sports as the new television host, the U.S. Open there looked and felt jarringly different. It was also a miserable spectator experience on site.
That doesn’t diminish Jordan Spieth’s victory there any more than Erin Hills playing easier than anticipated should impact Brooks Koepka’s win there. The USGA wanted to try new places and it got a mixed bag while getting two classic winners. Both spots could host future U.S. Opens but stepping outside the box was also a reminder of what the championship has been built upon.
The game’s major championships are defined not just by the players who win or lose them. They have their own identities and that’s what the USGA is intent on enhancing ...
Earlier this year, the USGA announced its new branding for the U.S. Open, which provides approximately 75 percent of the organization’s annual revenue. When the “From Many, One” slogan was introduced in February, the pandemic had yet to settle in and disrupt every corner of life.
Part of the charm of the U.S. Open is the qualifying process, annually producing a handful of stories about golfers who will never be stars but play their way into the field. That went away this year but it will return, thereby allowing the slogan to fit as intended.
Regardless, there are few if any places more tied to the image and history of the U.S. Open than 2020 host Winged Foot. Following Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach, Winged Foot promises a classic U.S. Open set-up on an old-school northeast layout where the trees are big and the stage is bigger.
Bobby Jones, Billy Casper, Hale Irwin, Fuzzy Zoeller and Geoff Ogilvy have won U.S. Opens at Winged Foot. Irwin won at 7-over par in 1974 and Ogilvy was 5-over when he won there 14 years ago. It’s not always that tough – Davis Love III was 11-under par when he won the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot and Zoeller was 7-under in his U.S. Open win – but this week figures to give us Winged Foot in full snarl.
The director of golf there, Steve Rabideau, recently said the goal of the club is to “make this one of the hardest U.S. Opens they will ever play.” That will delight many, who revel in watching what the U.S. Open traditionally does to players, exposing every crack in their game and often creating others.
On one hand, given the way the game has changed in recent years, it’s reassuring to see how a difficult course setup can nullify new-age power. However, turning every missed fairway into a pitch-out and limiting the potential for recovery shots can become monotonous and excitement-sapping.
A winning score of 7-over par may appeal to some but, ideally, the champion will have made some birdies and done something more heroic than being the last man standing.
If this U.S. Open is about getting back to what has made the championship what it is, Winged Foot may be the right place at the right time.
The same goes for making Pinehurst a perpetual part of the U.S. Open rotation. It’s called playing to your strength.