By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
A sure sign that the USGA needs to take a closer look at how it sets up the U.S. Open is when it draws comparisons with the Travelers Championship a week later.
Only this has nothing to do with the scoring.
To suggest that TPC River Highlands, at 1,000 yards shorter, was a tougher test than Erin Hills is to ignore that the U.S. Open played as a par 72 for the first time in 25 years. Golf is about the lowest score, not the lowest score to par. Jordan Spieth won the Travelers after finishing at 268. Brooks Koepka won a U.S. Open in soft conditions and moderate wind at 272.
It’s not about the finish, either.
Spieth, as popular as any player today, holed a 60-foot bunker shot in a playoff to beat Daniel Berger. Those moments are rare, even for Spieth. They hardly ever happen in a major, perhaps because there are only four majors a year. And even then, it usually involves only a putter (Phil Mickelson at Augusta, Payne Stewart at Pinehurst).
What the Travelers Championship had was noise.
It had atmosphere.
“I mean, the ground was shaking it was so loud,” Spieth said. “What a tremendous last four holes, finishing holes, where you can get the crowd super involved with an amphitheater setting. If I were a fan, I would pick this tournament.”
He also mentioned the Phoenix Open, and the list would have lengthened had he had more time to think, perhaps to include Muirfield Village or TPC Sawgrass.
The U.S. Open had 652 acres of Wisconsin pasture.
It also had an outstanding golf course in Erin Hills that didn’t play to full strength when the wind didn’t fully cooperate until Sunday. Part of its appeal, however, was the size of its property. Major championships are the biggest shows in golf and need space. They attract more corporate interest and more fans from outside the local market than the Travelers Championship or the Honda Classic.
But the value of atmosphere should not be overlooked. A good atmosphere comes from energized, enthusiastic fans. And those fans get their energy from being close to the action, feeding off the noise around them. That starts with being able to see golf without having to squint their eyes.
The lack of this sort of atmosphere was evident at Erin Hills.
That’s the biggest risk the USGA is taking by going to big, new courses.
Years ago a USGA executive, while playing a U.S. Open course a few months ahead of the championship, was talking about ways to bring fans closer to the action. Mike Davis, USGA executive director, was more interested in the competition, and his decisions were meant to find the best space to accommodate players.
Davis was winning the majority of those battles.
He had plenty of room at Erin Hills. But at what cost?
What makes Augusta National so appealing are the roars from every corner of the golf course, particularly when they rise up the hill from Amen Corner. PGA Championship venues put fans on top of the action, particularly at Valhalla and Baltusrol and Hazeltine.
The Travelers Championship also had the advantage of its strongest field. Then again, it has historically had great crowd support. And fans, by getting so close to the action, have reason to not only return but also extol their experiences to friends.
The U.S. Open will return to smaller courses over the next decade. Even after a soft, calm year, it should not lose its reputation for presenting the toughest test in golf.
Setting up a course for this tournament should involve more than the length of the rough, width of the fairways and speed of the green.
It should also be about where to put the ropes.