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The Congressional Low Scoring Panic

I see Golf Digest readers are in a tizzy over the U.S. Open low scoring this year and I've seen some correspondences from the blue blazer world lamenting this year's setup and forgiving course conditions.

In this week's Golf World I explain what was going on with the course and why some of the conditions remained soft. But before you have the chance to read that story, let's consider a few things.

First, Andy North sums up the silly kvetching about Congressional's setup in these comments to Doug Ferguson.

"Everybody knew those greens were going to be soft. My argument was, 'Why don't we have more rough? Why do we play the ladies' tees on half the holes?' Those were kind of things us angry old men were discussing," North said. "What has always set our championship apart from the other majors was the mental gymnastics you had to go through just to survive."

It's fascinating how the concept of varying tees with corresponding hole locations is blamed for the low scoring and the sense that the setup was not up to USGA standards. I'd put the fact that Congressional didn't play to its max yardage everyday a distant 9th on the list of reasons for the low scoring and simpler test. Here goes, in order:

1. Congressional was in immaculate condition. Mike Giuffre and crew had the fairways absolutely perfect, the greens looked lousy early in the week but perked up after Thursday's rain, and you only saw putts hop in the evening hours. The greens could not have been more different than last year's bumpy poa at Pebble, nor could they have been more conducive to making putts.

2. The greens were receptive to all shots, including from the rough. Why? A variety of reasons, most likely attributable to their newness and the USGA's decision to not lower cuts and strain them to pick up a few inches of Stimpmeter reading speed. Sub-Air can not impact the turf on top, just moisture that reaches the bottom of the USGA green. Moisture stayed at the surface for whatever reason and kept them soft.

3. The greens have very little contour and slope, require little local knowledge and make putting quite easy for today's players.

4. Players today hit the ball ridiculous distances with equipment that allows them to swing freely. Just as the USGA and PGA of America stated in their Tee It Forward campaign (but noticeably absent from the NBC graphic during this year's telecast), a course at 7600-7900 yards is the distance you would put more mid and long irons into their hands. Congressional, even from the tips, is too short to test today's players in a manner comparable to Open's from eras when equipment was in sync with architecture.

5. After Thursday, there was almost no wind whatsoever. No wind and today's players have one less thing to worry about.

6. The temperatures were warm and today's players drive it a mile in hot weather. Scoring is always good in hot weather.

7. The Blue Course design features almost no strategy, does little to make player uncomfortable and only posed significant danger in three places: the 10th, 11th and 18th holes. With little to think about and fear, today's players are quite proficient at scoring.

8. The bunkers had no bite. Mike Davis said that all spring, Congressional has struggled with the bunkers being too soft. With no rain 18 days prior to the event, steps were taken to firm them up enough. During the practice rounds they appeared just right, soft but balls were not plugging. But when the rains came, they firmed up and the lower cut around them went from sending balls to tough lies to more typical modern day manicured bunkers.

9. Congressional did not play to its maximum yardage. Had it been stretched to the max, I'm thinking the scoring average would have been impacted by at least .2 shots a day.

All of that said, the course produced a worthy champion who likely would have won had the conditions not gone so soft. I believe it would have been closer but ultimately, McIlroy was not going to be beat. 

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Reader Comments (53)

Would the furrowed bunkers a la Muirfield ever be a consideration?
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Good stuff, Geoff. Rory is definitely a worthy champion, but I question whether he would have won had it been closer. As you know, he had only two victories worldwide prior to last week. He almost choked away his lead at Dubai and won at Quail Hollow, as at Congressional, by a large margin. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Rory had to have some scar tissue from choking away the Masters two months ago. I think the jury is still out on whether he can finish a closely contested tournament, though winning the U.S. Open will undoubtedly boost his confidence the next time he is in contention.
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan
I wasn't there and I believe you were so I appreciate your comments.

I don't really understand the strategy comment (number 7.) Is there ever much strategy at a US Open?
The course appeared to have quite a bit of water. 16th hole looked quite good in terms of enticing players to go for the green in two shots.

Also, it appeared a number of holes had pin positions where a shot could funnel down to the hole. Mind-boggling that they put the pins below the slopes. Why not at the top? The USGA has done that before.

Along the lines of your 1st comment, McIlroy was hitting a lot of approaches from inside 120 yards. It did not appear that the course was very long.

Unless they are going to do this every year and accept the scoring that wet weather will provide
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt
New features that could have been skipped: 1) graduated rough (don't mow rough until forecast is defined for weekend and truly needed); and 2) closely mown areas next to the green, bunkers, pinestraw, water

Old features I missed: 1) US Open rough grown right to the edge of fairways and greens like previous/more traditional US Opens; 2) brown/dying greens on Sunday, and 3) remember the first year at Bethpage when some of the players couldn't reach the fairway from the tees?...LOL...I laffed pretty hard when I saw that :)

I was very annoyed (not used to it maybe?) when I saw players missing the fairway and not only being able to reach the green, but spin and stick their shots near the flag
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHoselRocket
looopy, where did you play? Did you carry your own bag?
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Not a problem loooopey. I bet your carry bag doesn't have a stand/legs....mine doesn't either.
06.21.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Funky, Dead on. Stand bags are for wimps. I'd enjoy a round with you--maybe three ones with dots aplenty.
06.21.2011 | Unregistered Commenterloops
True US Open set ups produced 2 wins for Andy North.
No question he was one of the all-time greats.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterchico
Three comments:

1. This was alluded to, but the screaming heat here the week before the tourney stopped the rough from growing. So, the rough didn't grow the week before. No rough and soft conditions = green light

2. As for why the moisture stayed on the greens: this is a swamp. Moisture never drains off anything.

3. A partner of mine is a member and he kvetched repeatedly about how they weren't playing the full yardage. Source of pride by the members to torture the pros.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterThe O
Imagine what kind of low numbers will be posted when the Open goes to Merion!!
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Stevens
Geoff, you missed the biggest reason that scores were so "low" this week - it was a par 71. With the exception of Pebble and Torrey, all recent US Open courses have been par 70. Including Congressional in 1997. If Congressional is made to the mythical par 70 (which has only been done to reduce the "red" numbers and make the US Open seem harder than it actually is...), places 1-7 would have been under par and everybody else would have been at even or higher.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor Anderson

Your 9 point analysis is spot on. Any hand wringing over this event is completely unnecessary. I spent Friday at the event and I was stunned to see a number of players putt from the back of two green which is bisected by a 36 inch slope and stop the ball at the cup at the front of the green. But for the weather's impact on the course there would have been no stopping those putts. Summer in the transition zone is a beast especially when it comes as early as it did this year. Spring lasted two weeks before high heat and humidity set in in mid May. Give someone who tends to drive it as straight as McIlroy those conditions, especially on a course that does not involve many angles, and its lights out.

By the way, hopefully everyone wringing their hands stops to consider that he shot 61 at Portrush from the tips when he was 15. Portrush is vastly more complicated than Congressional.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterrose
Davis most likely didn't want to push the envelope and put too much water on the greens the week before....perhaps pressure from Congressional's membership to not kill their new babies. They looked like they rolled great though. I used to live in the transition zone as was mentioned above...and the bent greens I played on in the summer were never hard and fast if they wanted them to last until the fall...THAT is when the courses got FUN!

I'm going to throw this one out there....How about planning and staging the US Open at different times of the year in order to get the best possible playing conditions. Congressional in the fall would be an even better test as would most mid-Atlantic areas.

I know this will never happen (TV and all those greed...err sports producers) but wasn't the PGA held in February in the past? When were the traditional dates and order for the Majors finalized? Anyone?
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterjohnnnycz
Del- right on.
Get those old 2 inch Oakmont rakes and make em' pay for a poor shot. it was childs play last week.
I like Geoffs reason # 7- 15 generic, no stress holes.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterjjshaka
@ jjshaka...the boom mic caught Zach saying "get in the bunker" on a wayward iron shot. Even a piker like myself prefers a trap shot from perfectly manicured sand as opposed to almost any lie in greenside rough!
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDel the Funk
Dan, Rory shot 62 on the final day at Quail to take the win I believe. Without looking it up, I think he came from behind to win that one.

There were an awful lot of guys who didn't find that course and setup easy this week. I think if it had been setup even harder, Rory would have won by more strokes.

As is evidenced by comments by hoselrocket and others, you will never get a setup that pleases everyone. The changes that were being praised by many just a short time ago, are now being criticized with a desire to return to more 'traditional' setups where the players need to hack it out from 3 feet off the fairway.

Until golf is played inside a building, it will always be subject to the whims of Mother Nature and it would be nice if people just got comfy with that.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterPress Agent
Add me to the list of people who doesn't mind a winning score at a major that is well under par. Why? Because the over-par/at-par winners tend to be one-hit wonders: Paul Lawrie, Steve Jones, etc. But big-under par winners have been great names: Jack, Tiger, Phil, etc. So allowing scoring actually identifies the great players, which is supposedly what majors are all about. But creating a train wreck gives you one-hit wonders.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJordan
Isn't the purpose of the tournament to identify the best player? Is anybody arguing that did not happen?

What kind of set up would have produced a different champion?
Although it was definitely an un- U.S. Open feeling championship, if one other player had been able to keep pace it could have made for a compelling tournament. Watson and Nicklaus played in abnormal conditions at Turnberrry, yet it is remembered as a terrific tournament.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn R
greens that hold and that are pretty flat = dart throwing for those guys

Rory also hit 62 greens in reg! , which i think i read was a record, and didnt seem to have many 40 footers, which means he was hitting it close

congrats to him!
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterchicago pt
Rory won by a considerable margin on the same course everyone else played. Period. Par is just a number and he lapped the field, twice, faltering only on the 71st hole when his concentration quite understandably faded a little.
johnnnycz-I believe the basic dates for the majors have been in use for the past 60-70 years (since the Masters joined the major rota). The 1971 PGA was held in February when it was played at PGA National in Florida, but any hope that moving the PGA out of the August heat permanently was squashed by the powers that be at Augusta, who rather enjoyed having the first major of the year. Obviously, moving the '71 PGA to February was a good idea, after what happened to the greens at PGA National when they played the PGA there in August 1987.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterwatson82
very good chico!

wasnt the 71 PGA moved to FL as a "favor" to Macarthur?
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commenterchicago pt
1. for me
For once in a long while, the venue was free from crappy Poa greens and McIlroy holed putts.

Best player won - get over it.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames H.
I really don't get the heartburn over the scoring. I know that the US Open is typically a tougher test, but you don't play the game against par, you play it against the field. You had one guy that absolutely destroyed everyone else.

Take away Rory, and scoring was lower than normal, but certainly not out of hand. That can easily be attributed to the rain. If the greens were typical rock-hard US Open condition, then we're looking at a completely different result, even with the rough not being as nasty as usual or the course playing at full yardage.

I really don't see how anyone needs to be "blamed" for the lower-than-normal scoring. If Rory had finished one ahead of the pack, would we even be talking about it? The fact is, he played the same course as everyone else and just completely embarrassed the field.

Sometimes I think that people like the see the US Open setups that get too close to the edge and fall over the cliff, because they want to see these guys get knocked down a peg. Having a ridiculously difficult setup doesn't sift out the undeserving and help to crown the best player in the field. It still just comes down to each man versus a strong field whether it's the Massacre at Winged Foot or whether it's played on a municipal pitch 'n putt with a winning score of -30. It's not that I don't think the setup should be challenging, but it's hardly the end of the world if it's not quite challenging enough.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Gray
Good point HoselRocket. The one factor our most excellent host overlooked (or maybe it's #10 on his list) is the rough. I'd prefer to see the USGA go back to the old-style US Open set up, with deep rough right up next to the fairway, not to keep scores up, but just to try to keep each of the majors distinguishable and rewarding different skills (e.g. no rough at the Masters, huge rough at the US Open, true links course at The Open, and what's that other major?). Sort of like each of tennis' majors having a different surface. That way only the truly complete player can win all 4.

I don't think the criticisms of the course set-up are intended as Rory hating. I'm glad he won.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnimal Kingdom
@johnnycz and Watson82: The dates for the majors have been cast in stone since 1972. The PGA is the only major to have moved around the calendar since the inaugural Masters, and for many years (until 1968) it used to be played the week after the British Open.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye
Recent winning scores at Congressional:
2007 AT&T...K.J. Choi...271 (-9)
2008 AT&T...Anthony Kim...268 (-12)
2009 AT&T...Tiger Woods...267 (-13)
2011 U.S. Open...268 (-16)

I would say there were likely just as many mistakes made in the set-up leading up to and during the championship as there were circumstances that led to low scores. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Rory's performance, but it simply wasn't a real U.S. Open test and the comparable scores to the AT&T above prove it. You can't take the trophy away, nor would I want to, but I'm not sure Rory knows anything more about winning a U.S. Open than K.J. Choi or Anthony Kim. This sounds crazy, but I actually enjoyed Sunday at Shinnecock in 2004 more than Congressional in 2011. Sure, Retief is a bore, but that was a "masterful" display. Winning the U.S. Open is about embracing the conditions and overcoming everything- the pressure, the fear, the doubt, the demands, the enormity of the moment. And if Phil hadn't four-putted 17, which had everything to do with his head rather than the conditions, and won the thing, then the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock would probably be remembered as one of the best ever.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRM
RM, the thing you're not considering in your comparison to the AT&T is the strength of the field. Players in a US Open (or any tournament, really) don't play against a course, they play against each other. Even if it had been a "real US Open test", what makes you think the result would be different? Sure, the scores would be higher and maybe he wouldn't have won by as large a margin. OK, so what? Rory played the best that week, compared to the rest of the field. If the greens were like concrete, would David Toms or Angel Cabrera suddenly have not missed the cut and been in contention?

There were 20 players under par in this US Open. There were 30 in the 2009 AT&T National. It doesn't seem like much, but it's 50% more. So, the course was playing a little more difficult, than during AT&T, but more importantly, the field was stronger.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike Gray
2011 US Open - 20 players under par.
1997-2010 US Open - 21 players under par combined.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterOWGR Fan
The fact that Kevin Chappell shot the lowest 3 day total in US Open history should convince everyone that the course's short setup over the weekend was a complete joke.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreg rose
I'm constantly amused by people who bitch and moan about the excruciating US Open setup where the pros are hacking out of heather, balls are bouncing off rock-hard greens and ankle-high rough swallows golf balls. THEN, they whine even louder when meteorological and agronomic conditions leave the contestants with a golf course that is plain and simple vulnerable.

That's what happened at Congressional. Maybe the club shouldn't have followed the recommendation to have A1/A4 USGA spec greens put in too close to the championship, but there's nothing they could have done to alter the heat, humidity and rain. NOTHING. As a result, like the PGA at Medinah a couple years back, the pros had a bit of a field day, scoring wise, at Congressional. Soft course plus hot pros equals low numbers.

Maybe the course isn't tough enough because length alone isn't enough these days. Maybe the bunkers are a piece of cake for everybody, and especially for tour pros. Maybe there aren't enough double bogey holes out there. Doesn't matter. It's an historic course out east and the USGA will have another Open there. Had the same set of circumstances occurred in the Midwest, they'd never go back, but that's another story. Rory won fair and square, would've won if the weather had been different and the balls were bouncing into the rough and all over the place on the greens. No asterisk for this championship.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered Commentertlavin
While I understand the game is played outdoors and is affected by weather, I am pretty sure if you ask any USGA official, they were cringing watching players make birdies from the rough

I understand the rationale in using graduated rough/setup of the greens, however, in this case they made this US Open closer to a normal tour stop, which is fine if that is the goal

Back in the day, when the leader drove in the rough, we used to check the entire leaderboard to see who was going to be brought into contention from the upcoming bogey...with Mike Davis' setups, that is no longer the case...

Rory's birdie from the rough on the number 1 handicap hole was just amazing/annoying...he should have been penalized one shot for missing that fairway, especially THE hole that the players feared all week. Instead he makes birdie spinning his "recovery" shot from the US Open rough....LOL

ahh well, I guess watching the US Open is very similar to watching the Phoenix Open now.

Bummer, cuz I used to look forward to the majors
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHoselRocket
Agree that length is no deterrent to this era of players, you'd have to stretch it to 8000+ yards for length to be an issue. Plus, really, Congressional has no demanding quality to it, no architectural nuance, no place where hard, game-changing choices had to be made. Mostly bland holes, but a pretty cool scene around 10 & 18 with the clubhouse. So even under favorable USGA conditions, Congressional is still lacking, just a mediocre parkland course that's been Reese Jones-ed to death. So it seems to me that they should have prepared this course in an old-fashioned USGA way: heavy, penal rough, narrow fairways and tough pin placements. For example, Oakmont is one of the hardest courses in the world and had brutal rough. It was literally hard to walk through. I believe a U.S. Open should be just a tiny fraction on the side of unfair and undoable. Just a fraction, enough to truly test every facet of these players' game and head, to provide a thorough challenge unlike any other in golf.

On another note, complaining about the set up and ease of the course does not equal complaining about Rory as the champion, or suggesting that a tougher test would have brought a different result.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRM
All I can say is that real golfers can identify a superb performance when they see one, regardless of the playing conditions, and they appreciate it accordingly. I can't help but wonder what the posts would have looked like had this blog been around in July 1977 - 268 in the Open Championship? Sacriledge! Turnberry's a terrible venue! Put an asterisk next to Watson's name on The Claret Jug!
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye
Mike, I completely disagree with "the players are playing each other and not the course". In fact, show me one quote from any golfer that backs up this statement.

I think the opposite is true. You always hear them say " I am playing against the course and not paying attention to other scores etc."
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Hamilton
Meh. Rory played great, course was soft, big deal get over it.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterA3golfer
Hawkeye- Rory's performance and the golf course set-up are two completely separate issues. I would argue that a real golfer digs beneath the surface to break down various aspects of any golf experience, whether it's a tournament, a course, a hole, a player, etc. Having been to the last 8 US Opens and watching every one on TV since 1980 when I was 13 years old, this one, regardless of the result, sticks out like a sore thumb. Kinda like over par winning at The Masters. It just doesn't feel right.

Also, I had complete appreciation for Rory's performance and enjoyed every second of it. I do rank it up there with Tiger's 1997 Masters, 2000 & 2008 US Opens and Phil's 2004 Masters among recent significant victories. (If only we could add Tom Watson to that list!)
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRM
@Hawkeye..... Watson was -12 (268) at Turnberry and Nicklaus -11. Those scores are not out of line for the Open Championship.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterOWGR Fan
They were at the time.
06.22.2011 | Unregistered CommenterHawkeye

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