After a long experimental phase, it’s time for the U.S. Open to rebuild its traditional brand.
If you’re collecting the full deck of playing cards at home, Erin Hills is the 52nd course to play host to the U.S. Open. The USGA has seemingly been racing to expand its purview over the last two decades, traveling to six first-time destinations in the last 19 years.
While its mission to take the national championship to more publicly accessible courses in more regions has been noble, it has diluted its history and diminished its identity as the toughest test in golf.
In no way is that meant to be an indictment of Erin Hills. The rolling fairways and fescues of Wisconsin’s rural Kettle Moraine make for a fetching stage on our flat screen televisions. It’s big, brawny, major worthy and fun to watch.
However, let the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup have places like Erin Hills and Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits and Valhalla. The U.S. Open needs to settle its own “rotation” that returns more consistently to the traditional places where today’s greats can compete with established history.
Major championships need to have a clear identity. The Masters has Augusta National and the legacy that builds generation after generation in the same familiar place. The Open Championship has its rota of classic British links and the unique challenges they all provide.
The U.S. Open is best defined by its classic venues shrouded in rough so thick and greens so fast that it brings the best players to their knees. It’s a test of will and patience as much as its a test of golf. It’s okay once a year to be as buttoned-up traditional as the blue blazers its executives wear. We want to see how today’s champions with modern equipment can contend with the same tests in the same places that elevated or defeated legends from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson.
Without that connection to the past, some recent U.S. Opens have felt more like PGAs, and that’s not a comparison anybody really wants.
The PGA of America has never really settled on an identity in its century of existence. It’s gone from match play to medal and may soon move from August to May. It’s gone from playing some forgettable places (Tanglewood?) to trying desperately to imitate its older major sibling.
This year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte will mark the 73rd course the PGA of America will have taken its major to in 100 years going back to its debut in 1916 at Siwanoy Country Club in New York. By 2022, that number will climb to 76. Four-time venue Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., – which the PGA has already promised a future return – is the only course to host more than three PGAs.
The U.S. Open and PGA have overlapped at 22 venues through the years. There’s no need for that. Let the PGA be the major that stakes out new places in new places, with the potential move to May opening up fresh markets from Florida to Texas that have been previously rendered unplayable in the heat of the summer. Let the PGA of America take over the public destinations like Bethpage State Park, Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay and Erin Hills – if not for the PGA based on season then at least the Ryder Cup.
The USGA doesn’t need to go full R&A and create a rigid rota. Only 14 courses have ever held any of the 145 Open Championships dating back to 1860. Only 10 courses have comprised the Open rota going back to 1932. Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland will finally get a return in 2019 since last hosting before “the troubles” in 1951. Turnberry is the youngest member, making a splashy debut with the “Duel in the Sun” in 1977.
The U.S. Open needs to pick eight of its vetted pillars to return to roughly every 10- to 12-year cycle – Oakmont, Shinnecock, Pebble Beach, Winged Foot, Olympic, Pinehurst, Baltusrol and Oakland Hills. Then mix in a smaller cluster of classics – Merion, Brookline, Cherry Hills, Oak Hill, Los Angeles Country Club, Congressional and Bethpage – every 20 to 25 years.
That way every generation of greats will get a couple of turns through the rotation and won’t go a career without getting at least one chance to play where Jones got a piece of his grand slam, Hogan pured his 1-iron and Francis Ouimet changed everything.
The next decade of already selected venues is a good start to a return to routine. Only Torrey Pines, where Tiger Woods last won a major in 2008, and the renovated George Thomas classic LACC stray (but not too far) from the 20th-century blueprint.
It’s been a worthy experiment trying to broaden the game in a new golden age of golf course design. Places like Erin Hills and Chambers Bay deserve the exposure as they establish themselves as modern classics.
But the U.S. Open was already as classic as original Coca-Cola before it veered outside the box. Some formulas don’t need change. They need preserving.