The day the USGA lost Shinnecock Hills | via Rex Hoggard for Golf Channel
Although the entire course – which had been sent over the line by a dry wind that siphoned every drop of moisture from the layout – would essentially become unplayable, it is the seventh hole that remains the modern USGA’s darkest hour.
After Stadler and Henry made a mess of the seventh, officials scrambled in an attempt to keep things from truly getting out of hand. Crews began to syringe greens between groups, an unprecedented move in the middle of a round, but the alternative was not an option.
“It would have been 100 percent unplayable if they hadn’t started watering,” Stadle said. “It would have been impossible.”
The USGA learned some valuable lessons that day that they've worked to carry forward ever since. The race to make the U.S. Open host course as extremely challenging as possible has been tempered. I think for the better. There was a time when the U.S. Open was seen to be more about humbling the greatest players in the world with extreme course conditions than testing their skills. Thankfully, while still one of the most challenging events of the year, the USGA has realized that extreme golf is not why golf fans love to watch the game.
The USGA certainly never intended for things to get as out of hand as they did at Shinnecock in 2004. They learned that taking a course so near its limit does mean that it has a chance of going over that limit when unexpected conditions arise. The staff did their best to try to save the day but the damage was done and the tournament is remembered more for the course conditions than it's eventual winner Retief Goosen.
It's not all perfect just yet at the USGA. We just saw that they're still playing by their own set of "traditional" rules at the recent Women's U.S. Open at Shoal Creek. Tons of rain fell on the course in the days just before the tournament started and even continued into the tournament itself. The course was a muddy mess as play began but the USGA completely refused to consider allowing the players to use the now widely accepted "lift-clean-place" rules to mitigate mud balls. Some discussion of allowing "lift-clean-replace" took place but it was quickly dismissed. They refused to put in the rule because they've never allowed it in any of their competitions. There's something to be said about tradition, but, it seems ironic that while we're hearing so much from the USGA about modernizing the rules to make the sport friendlier and easier to enjoy they refuse to do so in their own competitions.
The weather forecast for Shinnecock Hills this week is nearly perfect. Low chances of rain and perfect temperatures in the mid to high 70's are expected through the entire week of play. There shouldn't be any problems with course conditions this time around. Shinnecock Hills will shine bright and on Sunday we'll be talking about the winner of the U.S. Open and not the condition of the course. I think the USGA would be thrilled to stop being the center of conversation at their own events.