Some might say its length — a modest 7,254 yards — is more reasonable than in the recent past. Nobody will argue that some of the holes on the classic layout at The Country Club are downright short.
The USGA brought its top-line event — the toughest test in golf — to an old-school course built on a small piece of property, the sort of layout that is becoming more obsolete in big-time golf. It has a drivable par-4, a reachable par 5, and will also feature a par-3 that could play less than 100 yards.
After a week of handwringing about the future of the sport and the defections to the breakaway LIV Tour, the actual golf starts Thursday on a course that will remind some of the old days.
“Really a cool style of golf,” said top-ranked Scottie Scheffler, hoping to add a U.S. Open title to the green jacket he won at the Masters earlier this year.
Scheffler and 155 others will be forced to think their way around a course filled with blind tee shots. In practice rounds, players were finding their lines by looking at flags far in the distance and fescue-covered rocks perched on hills just ahead.
It has two holes, the third and fourth, that essentially share the same fairway, with the shots going in opposite directions.
There are big doglegs — the famed 17th hole (Think Francis Ouimet and the celebration at the 1999 Ryder Cup ) measures only 375 yards but has a massive crook in the middle guarded by a tree line on the left and four bunkers that jut into the left side of the fairway. One of them, “The Vardon Bunker,” essentially cost Harry Vardon the U.S. Open in the stretch against Ouimet in 1913.
It is a craggy, New England-style golf course, the likes of which have largely been left behind in professional golf as equipment and athleticism force everything to get bigger.
Bringing the U.S. Open back to The Country Club for the first time since 1988 marks a sizable leap of faith for an organization that has often staked the reputation of its biggest event to the winner’s relationship to par. But a look at recent history shows that a supersized course is not a guarantee of keeping the numbers down.
The four rounds at Erin Hills all measured more than 7,700 yards and are the four longest course setups in U.S. Open history. Brooks Koepka won that title with a score of 16-under par.
The 2012 winner at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Webb Simpson, came in at a modest 1 over on a course listed at a modest 7,170 yards. Some suspected the course setup there was impacted by the previous year, when Rory McIlroy tore up 7,574-yard Congressional and won with a record score of 268.
But The Country Club’s welcome back was really triggered in 2013. Justin Rose won with a score of 1 over at Merion, an old-style course on a tiny piece of property outside of Philadelphia. The layout didn’t measure 7,000 yards.
“There were just too many hurdles to overcome,” the USGA’s chief championships officer, John Bodenhamer, said of the prospect of coming back to The Country Club. “But … 2013 changed our perspective.”
Part of this week’s drama will include the par-3 11th hole, which measures 131 yards on the scorecard but could be reduced into double-digits for part of this tournament. That’s a distinction that has long been reserved for the most picturesque hole in golf, the seventh at Pebble Beach with its green jutting into the pacific. It’s possible here because of the severe bunkering front and left, a 10-foot drop off in back into gnarly brush and a downhill tee shot to a green that slopes back to front.
The par-four fifth hole measures 310 yards. It is uphill but well within reach from the tee, and heavily bunkered.
Part of what will give The Country Club its bite are the greens. They are heavily sloped — from back to front, or sideways In total, the putting surfaces average only about 4,400 square feet per green, the second-smallest green complex, behind Pebble Beach, in championship golf.
The par-5 eighth is reachable at 557 yards. The par-4 ninth measures 427 yards but it is severely downhill.
“What you’ll see on this golf course is an ebb and flow like nowhere else,” Bodenhamer promises.
Once the players reach the 12th, they figure to be looking at a typical U.S. Open test, though even within that realm, there figure to be some iron shots off some tees, especially the 17th.
“I love it, mate,” said Cam Smith, the Aussie who is ranked sixth in the world. “Probably my favorite U.S. Open venue I’ve been to.”
The next four days will determine whether the USGA agrees.