By Will Starkey
In preparation for the 2018 U.S. Open, Shinnecock Hills has announced that the famed links-style layout will be lengthened by a staggering 446 yards. The par-70 course will play to 7,445 yards from the tips, with the two biggest changes coming down the stretch – the par 4 14th and par 5 16th have each been extended 76 yards, to 519 and 616 yards respectively. The length debate is as heated now as it has ever been, with many calling for the game’s governing bodies to intervene and put tighter restrictions on modern technology. Is the lengthening of Shinnecock Hills a change that was necessary to protect the U.S. Open? Time will tell. However, it cannot be denied that the USGA are urgent for a successful championship.
The 2015 U.S. Open at a baked Chambers Bay was tainted by negative player reviews about course conditioning, especially the quality of the greens. The 2016 U.S. Open provided a stern test of golf at the ever-reliable Oakmont Country Club, however the USGA was battered extensively for the controversial Dustin Johnson ruling on Sunday. The latest edition in 2017 saw the competition at another links venue at Erin Hills, where the leaderboard was top-heavy with players known for their prodigious length off the tee.
Critics were quick to blame modern technology for abnormally low scoring when Brooks Koepka emerged victorious at Erin Hills, with an impressive 16-under par total. Yet, the championship saw ideal weather conditions for not only the four days of the tournament, but in the weeks leading up also. Erin Hills received a good amount of rain in the imminent weeks, which allowed the greens to remain somewhat receptive, and not the bouncy surfaces that are typical of a U.S. Open. Furthermore, the days of the tournament boasted sunny skies and light winds, perfect for shooting good scores. And therein lies the beauty of links golf.
A good links venue stands at the mercy of mother nature. On a windy day, it is easy to find the gnarly fescue and from there, bounce through the firm greens due to sacrificed control over iron shots. Conversely, on a calm day, the wide-open terrain allows for creative shot-making, and strategic course management rewards players with multiple birdie chances. Another example of this is at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship over the weekend. On Sunday at The Old Course, Ross Fisher broke a course record as old as time, shooting a blistering 11-under 61 on his way to a second-place finish, three strokes behind eventual winner Tyrrell Hatton. What’s also impressive is that Victor Dubuisson nearly achieved the same feat, only a few groups ahead of Fisher. Back to back birdies at 14 and 15 got Dubuisson to -10 on the day, only to play his last three holes in a disappointing one-over, ultimately settling for a final-round 63 and a third-place showing. The point is that St. Andrews provided pristine weather conditions on Sunday, allowing players to play aggressively, and those who executed successfully were rewarded with lots of birdies.
Links golf is a magnificent part of our game, and should be appreciated for what it is. At the end of the day, mother nature has the ultimate say in how links courses stand up to the world’s elite. Given prime weather conditions, links golf rewards shot making with low numbers. However, when faced with adverse conditions, the best players in the world could struggle to break 75 around The Old Course, Erin Hills, or any links venue for that matter. Adding length is not always the best defense against low scores on links golf courses, and it will be interesting to see how these changes affect the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.