Wednesday 25 April 2018

Olympic ordeal punishes also-rans but this was no massacre

Webb Simpson proved that no course is too difficult for the best, writes Dermot Gilleece

The US Golf Association are not beyond making fools of themselves in the staging of their national professional championship. They famously did it when the US Open went to Shinnecock Hills in 2004. But they didn't do it at The Olympic Club last weekend.

Shinnecock will be remembered for an over-zealous pursuit of firm, fast conditions when the green on the short seventh became so parched that it had to be watered during the final round, so changing its playing characteristics. Clearly, it wasn't their finest hour.

Memories were prompted of the so-called Massacre of Winged Foot. This was the 1974 staging when green conditions were rendered so firm and hostile that only seven players broke 70 over the four rounds and Hale Irwin eventually won with a seven-over-par aggregate of 287.

It was also when, after nobody had succeeded in breaking par on the opening day, the USGA were asked if their intention was to make the game's best players look bad. To which Sandy Tatum of the championship committee memorably replied: "No, we're trying to identify them."

Some British scribes, with views possibly coloured by Luke Donald's failure to make the cut and Lee Westwood's travails on Sunday, were highly critical of the San Francisco venue. Under the headline 'Big turn-off', Derek Lawrenson of the Daily Mail described it as "the worst course on the US Open rota".

Meanwhile, Sky commentators, including Colin Montgomerie, talked repeatedly about the unfairness of it all. How players were hitting perfectly good shots which were over-running the target, culminating in excessive punishment at the bottom of slopes.

I was reminded of the Irish Open at Killarney in 1991, when players complained bitterly about the perceived unfairness of the elevated and notoriously shallow 17th green. When Nick Faldo, the winner there in 1991 and 1992, was asked what he thought of it, he replied tersely: "It's there and it's playable." In other words, get on with it lads.

Since Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, took control of setting up US Open courses, the mistakes of earlier years haven't been repeated. Pádraig Harrington was among those who admired what Davis did at Olympic. "I never found the course difficult to play," he said after being tied fourth behind Webb Simpson. "It was a joy to play -- testing but very fair."

Some players undoubtedly had unlucky breaks, as Westwood clearly did when his ball caught in a tree off his drive on the fifth on Sunday. But while tricky bounces are not associated with parkland courses, they happen on links terrain all the time. Indeed this week at Royal Portrush, competitors' patience is going to be severely tested as they see balls from seemingly well-struck shots, take a vicious bounce in the "wrong" direction.

I thought the climactic stage last weekend was thoroughly absorbing, with at least six players having a realistic shot at victory. And how can conditions be described as excessively tough and flukey, when Simpson shot successive 68s over the weekend and eventually claimed the title after eight straight pars from the 11th?

Despite suffering more than most over a tough weekend, Tiger Woods saw nothing unfair about it. "This golf course is just so demanding that a fraction off, you pay the price," he said without rancour. Graeme McDowell, who has yet to produce his best form this year, was of like mind. "The tougher the golf course, the better for me," he said.

To borrow Faldo's words, it was there and it was playable. And the honest ones among those who came to grief knew the truth of this, deep down.

Sunday Indo Sport

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