US Open aims to lay the ghost of 2004 in Shinnecock Hills

US Open aims to lay the ghost of 2004 in Shinnecock Hills

US Open aims to lay the ghost of 2004 in Shinnecock Hills

The U.S. Golf Association vows there will be no repeat of the fiasco of 2004 as the U.S. Open Golf Championship returns to Shinnecock Hills next week.

The historic course on New York’s Long Island last hosted the championship 14 years ago, when the USGA’s zeal for demanding course set-up backfired as blistering winds dried and damaged the greens.

The par-three seventh, in particular, was virtually unplayable, even after officials began watering the putting surface between groups.“It was certainly a bogey last time, probably a double-bogey,” admits USGA chief executive Mike Davis.

“We had a situation where on some holes, and particularly the seventh hole itself, we were watching well-executed shots not being rewarded...I can assure you, that was not what the USGA wanted.”    

Champion Retief Goosen of South Africa at four-under and runner-up Phil Mickelson - two strokes back - were the only players to finish under par that year.

No one posted a sub-par round on June 3, when the average score on the par-70 layout was 78.7 strokes.

Although Davis says the USGA remains committed to making the U.S. Open the most searching test in golf, he said technological advances ensure that  course won’t tip over into unfairness.

“Nowadays we have got everything from firmness meters, we have got moisture meters in the greens. The meteorology is better, so we not only know where the winds are coming from but the velocities. And, frankly, there’s better communication between the USGA and the grounds staff,” he said.

“When you set up a US Open, it is golf’s ultimate test, it’s probably set up closer to the edge than any other event in golf. I think that the difference then versus now is we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands.”

This year Shinnecock, which hosted the second U.S. Open in 1896 and hosted again in 1986 and 1995, will present a different face from that of 2004.

It will play 449 yards longer at 7,445 and more than 500 trees have been removed, lending the course an open, windswept look.

At an average 41.6 yards across, the fairways are wide in comparison to the 26.6 yard average widths of the landing areas over the 1986, ‘94 and ‘04 Opens -- although plans to leave them even wider were scrapped in September as officials pondered the best way to keep accuracy off the tee at a premium.

“Phenomenal,” Mickelson said of the course after a practice round in May.

“It’s really well done. They renovated it a little bit and some of the fairways are a little bit wider. Certainly the rough is as penalizing or more so than I’ve seen it, but the fairways are fair and the greens are as healthy as I’ve seen them.” 

Mickelson, who lacks only a US Open to become just the sixth player in history to win all four major championships, has six runner-up finishes in the event.

He called the current Shinnecock “the greatest set-up I’ve seen in a U.S. Open.”

“It will reward the best player as opposed to having luck be a big element on some of the bounces in the fairway, bounces around the green, how it comes out of the rough, so forth.

“Skill is going to be the primary factor,” added Mickelson, whose game is well-suited to Shinnecock.

The 47-year-old five-time major winner ended a near five-year victory drought with his win in the WGC-Mexico Championship, one of five top-six finishes this year as he stamped himself a contender for the longed-for trophy.

Tiger Woods, who claimed the last of his 14 major titles a decade ago at the 2008 US Open, has gone from strength to strength in his comeback from spinal fusion surgery, although he remains in search of his first win since 2013.

World number one Justin Thomas heads a list of contenders along with the man he replaced at the summit, Dustin Johnson, and former No. 1 Rory McIlroy - who has a victory, two runner-up finishes and three other top-10s this season.

Patrick Reed arrives off a breakthrough major victory at the Masters, while 2013 champion Justin Rose appears to be peaking at the right time after a victory in the Fort Worth Invitational in May.

Jordan Spieth has slipped down the world rankings without a win so far this year, but his four top-10s included a storming run to third at Augusta National.

Brooks Koepka, trying to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1988-89 to win back to back U.S. Opens, has shown solid form since missing 15 weeks with a wrist injury.