In True US Open Fashion, Shinnecock Hills Tests The Field

Through two rounds, the real winner of the US Open has been the course

For the lifelong golfer, there is something cathartic about the US Open. We all struggle on the golf course from time to time, when the conditions or the course or our own bad habits just get the better of us. Everybody, from scratch golfers to high handicappers lucky to get out once every few months, has had that frustrating day on the greens, or the tee, or both.

Golfers are trained, on every level, to play against the course. The main difference between the rest of us and the professionals is that the pros tend to win this battle. Yet for one week a year, there is a tournament where it’s okay for a golfer to sit back and root for the course. The US Open this year has not disappointed, with only Dustin Johnson under par through two rounds.

There is a simple pleasure in watching a crowd of professional golfers look for a missing golf ball the way any foursome on any public course will repeatedly throughout the course of a round. “Welcome to our world, guys.”

That is the thrill of the US Open when it does what it does best: Present such a challenge that even the best in the world find themselves grasping at straws to figure out how to get one over on the golf course. If golf is truly a sport of a golfer against the course, the US Open is the course’s best defense. It is where all the regular season stops that find themselves hosting scores of red numbers extract a little bit of revenge.

Shinnecock Hills played brutally for the first two days of this tournament. Winds were a factor, but stiff greens were an even more difficult one to solve. Rough grown long punishes any drive not lucky enough to find the fairway, Every round in the 60s seemed special, if only because they were so rare.

On Thursday, somebody shot a 92. Imagine how tough a course must be playing to force someone capable of qualifying for the US Open to finish with a score of 92. The normal golfer couldn’t dream of breaking 100 on this course.

This is all by design. The USGA sets their championship to a high standard: They want it to be the toughest test in golf, and this year Shinnecock Hills is not letting them down.

Coming into the tournament, it was easy to try and find a profile for what golfer might be able to best attack the Long Island country club. The US Open traditionally rewards certain things, and past events at this course have rewarded certain things. However, this missed the point. To win this week, a golfer needs to be good at everything.

Because of the grown-out rough, accuracy off the tee is paramount. This is always true of the national championship, but Shinnecock’s firm, unforgiving, elevated greens have been punishing to anybody whose flat stick is not in order. Jordan Spieth has lost his touch on the greens and as a result his hopes vanished quickly. Tiger Woods is still looking for real consistency in this department, and he’s already off to look for it elsewhere.

The greens are not only fast, they are rock solid. Imagine trying to stop a golf ball on the surface at Amalie Arena. It’s not quite that difficult, but it’s closer to that than the golf most of us are familiar with. This means that even some good shots have bounced off the green, providing a pop quiz on the short game for the entire field. This year’s edition of the US Open is not going to reward a certain kind of golfer, it is going to punish anybody and everybody who has trouble with any one aspect of the game.

When the USGA says this is the toughest test in golf, they’re talking about the test people have recurring nightmares about. The one for which they arrive with no preparation, and often no clothing. Here, go make a putt on shale.

Dustin Johnson has had to really fight through the first two rounds to get to -4, but in doing so he’s the only person entering the weekend with a red number. The consensus favorite coming in, the big hitter came in off a win at the St. Jude Classic, and overall seems to be in the best current form of anybody on the PGA Tour.

Johnson through 36 holes has done the best job meeting Shinnecock Hills on its own terms, a must for a potential US Open champ. He has taken the opportunities the course has given him without trying to create any where the track did not allow. Johnson has also made a couple of monster putts on lightning-fast greens. As a result, he will get the usually-friendlier late tee time on Saturday, with a chance to put even more distance between himself and a talented field.

Even a four shot lead at the US Open seems small with two rounds remaining. As tough as the course as played, it’s not that hard to imagine Johnson stumbling as well to even things up, or perhaps somebody from the chasing pack such as Rickie Fowler or Justin Thomas will make a charge on Moving Day. Last year’s champion Brooks Koepka put together a round of 66 on Friday to get to +1 and within striking distance.

This is not the time to make a sweeping statement on the career of Tiger Woods.

Yes, Tiger remains on the comeback trail, and the US Open appears to be a setback. After all, he’s back on his yacht for the weekend, having missed the cut at +10. In those two days, he didn’t have many stellar moments.

Of course, that could simply be another story of how Shinnecock Hills has been giving players fits. Woods is in some good company having missed the cut. Rory McIlroy is there with him, along with young phenom Jordan Spieth and his wayward putter, Jason Day, Jon Rahm, and Sergio Garcia.

This is the US Open at its most pure, the US Open the way it was always drawn up. Tiger slipping at Shinnecock is little surprise, not because of where Tiger is as much as where the course is. Given how difficult it has played, the only takeaway regarding Woods is that he seems to still be healthy, and the longer he stays healthy and stays on the golf course the better chance he’ll return to something resembling familiar Tiger form.

Weather plays a factor in a tournament like this, at least inasmuch as sudden rain can soften greens in a US Open and lower scores. No such rain is expected this weekend on Long Island, but the winds that have given many fits are expected to calm over the weekend.

The real opportunity on moving day is that golfers have now had two rounds of championship play to get used to the course’s difficulty. If anybody is going to make a charge on Saturday, they will have to do it knowing what they can get away with and what they cannot. They will also have to do it with the knowledge that the same ideal conditions they themselves are experiencing are going to be there for Dustin Johnson and his lead.

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Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.