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Jun 19, 2018 3:12 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Tradition, Drama, And A Challenge Like No Tther: Shinnecock Hills Does Not Disappoint In Hosting 2018 U.S. Open

Brooks Koepka became a back-to-back U.S. Open champion on Sunday when he finished at 1-over par to take home the trophy at Shinnecock Hills. CAILIN RILEY
Jun 19, 2018 3:12 PM

High winds. Difficult conditions. A bizarre rules controversy involving a marquee player. Heated debates on the course setup. And a dogfight for the trophy down the stretch.

The 118th U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills had it all, making one of the most anticipated weeks in professional golf even more exciting than usual.

The drama—and there was plenty of it—played out in prime time, as the rest of the world was invited into one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious private golf clubs, with Southampton taking center stage.

There was still plenty to talk about on Monday, a day after 28-year-old Floridian Brooks Koepka stood on the 18th green kissing the silver trophy for the second consecutive year, becoming just the first player to win back-to-back Open titles since Curtis Strange did it in 1988 and 1989.

He posted a 1-over-par 281 for the 72 holes, shooting a 2-under-par 68 on the final day—just enough to beat 27-year-old Englishman and first-year PGA tour player Tommy Fleetwood, who fired a 7-under 63 earlier in the day, just one stroke off the club record, and finished second with a four-day score of 282.

Only five others in U.S. Open history have shot a 63 in any round, including Justin Thomas just last year at Erin Hills. Vijay Singh (2003, Olympia Fields), Jack Nicklaus (1980, Baltusrol), Tom Weiskopf (1980, Baltusrol) and Johnny Miller (1973, Oakmont) also accomplished the feat.

Koepka described winning back-to-back Opens as “incredible.”

“To be honest with you, I probably couldn’t have dreamed of it in my wildest dreams,” he said in a press conference at Shinnecock Hills after the tournament ended on Sunday. “I’m at a loss for words right now, but it’s really incredible. I couldn’t be happier.”

Koepka was playing alongside good friend Dustin Johnson, who shot even par on Sunday to place third overall. Johnson had a commanding lead going into the weekend, the only player under par, at 4-under. But a 77 on Saturday set him back, and he ultimately settled for third.

Reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed—who worked with Shinnecock Hills club caddy Tim Fox for several days leading up to the Open—shot a 2-under 68 to finish fourth.

Two other Shinnecock club caddies played a role in the Open, with 31-year veteran Lenny Bummolo carrying the bag for Aussie Adam Scott, who won the Masters in 2013, and Eric Ryder picking up caddying duties for Canadian pro tour player Chris Babcock. Both players missed the cut.

Spectators who flocked to the course on Sunday were treated to a genuine fight for the title, as Fleetwood entered the clubhouse early after his blistering round and was forced to wait it out to see if anyone could beat him. Koepka, world number one Johnson, Tony Finau and Daniel Berger entered the final day in a four-way tie for the lead at 3-over.

Koepka had birdies on three of the first nine holes, with one bogey, and had two bogeys and two birdies on the back nine, with several impressive par saves as well. His birdie on the 16th hole gave him some breathing room, which he ended up needing after a bogey on the final hole.

Fleetwood made eight birdies on the day, but the one he didn’t make—a 9-footer on the final hole—ended up costing him the tie.

Saturday’s Setup

Fleetwood’s impressive round was not surprising to anyone who has watched the young up-and-comer in recent events, but it was a score that would have been downright impossible a day earlier, when the storyline that dominated the day was a brutally difficult course setup.

Punishing pin placements—particularly on the 13th and 15th holes—combined with winds that the USGA said were stronger than forecast. As a result, lightning-fast greens that only became faster as the day went on quickly became the talk of the championship, threatening to overwhelm the conversation.

The conditions harkened back to 2004, the last time Shinnecock hosted the Open, when the greens were dried out and virtually unplayable on the final day, becoming the dominant story of that week. Several players expressed their displeasure at what they felt was an unfair situation.

Englishman Ian Poulter sounded off with harsh words against the USGA on Twitter after Saturday’s round, and Masters champion Zach Johnson said after his round that he felt those in charge had “lost the course,” although he later clarified his statement on Twitter, saying he thought the course “got away” from setup officials in certain places.

The USGA admitted as much at the end of play on Saturday, when only three players—Berger, Finau and Kiradech Aphibarnrat—had rounds under par. “We would say that it was a very tough test, and really too tough this afternoon,” acknowledged USGA Executive Director Mike Davis. “It got too tough today in some areas. If we got a mulligan, we would have slowed the greens down this afternoon.”

“The fact that the worse a player played Thursday/Friday (if you made the cut) gave them more than a substantial advantage today, is unfortunate,” Johnson said in his tweet, referencing the fact that the leaders teed off later in the day, when conditions worsened. “Yes the course gets more difficult as the day goes on, especially on the weekend, but good shots should be rewarded not penalized at all times. This will still be a great championship, in my opinion, on the best venue of any US Open. Shinnecock Hills is just tremendous.”

The USGA saved face on the most important day, however, with a gentler setup on Sunday, which led to lower scores.

Phil’s Debacle

The debate over course fairness wasn’t the only dramatic moment on Saturday.

What will surely go down as one of the most memorable moments of the championship was the bizarre and stunning move by Phil Mickelson on the 13th hole while he was in the middle of a disastrous round that slammed the brakes on his hopes of claiming his first U.S. Open championship.

While on the green at the 13th hole, Mickelson, who was repeatedly serenaded by fans on his 48th birthday on Saturday, decided to chase after a missed putt that was clearly gathering steam and heading off the green and into a nearby bunker. He ran after it, then struck it back toward the hole while it was still moving—a clear violation of Rule 14-5, for which a two-stroke penalty is assessed.

That stab at the moving ball counted as a shot, and he needed two more putts after that to find the bottom of the cup, leading to a 10 on the hole.

Many people wondered if he would be disqualified for the move, and, indeed, numerous golf writers, broadcasters and columnists called on him to withdraw for what they said was a gross violation of the rules, likely borne out of frustration with what had been a tough day for him and many other players on the course.

The USGA clarified its decision not to disqualify him with a lengthy statement that said, in essence, that based on the type of infraction he committed, the rule book did not require him to be disqualified.

Mickelson did not withdraw, instead showing up on Sunday and shooting a 1-under-par 69, including an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole. While many sportswriters and broadcasters excoriated him, the fans, by and large, did not seemed fazed by the move, and some even seemed to sympathize with the frustration of playing in a setup that was subject to criticism.

“They couldn’t disqualify him—he’s the one everyone wants to see. This is ratings gold,” said Charlie Edmundsen of Short Hills, New Jersey, in the crowd on Sunday morning. “I don’t think he should have withdrawn. He was making a point. A lot of guys were angry.”

Local Impact

The talk of the championship early in the week was the traffic nightmare it created for workers and commuters in the area who, at this time of year, are already dealing with significant delays getting to and from work.

There were reports that several of the more than 4,000 volunteers who work at the Open were either late in arriving or unable to get to their posts at all. Tiger Woods—who parked his yacht in Sag Harbor for the week—even spoke at a press conference about legitimate concerns that a player could miss a tee time, something that ultimately did not happen.

Those issues improved and the complaints tamped down a bit on the weekend, when the absence of the weekday “trade parade” volume significantly improved traffic flow. The temporary train stop across the street from the course helped as well, with more than 11,000 people using the train to get to and from the Open on Saturday, according to the USGA.

Spectators also took advantage of shuttles running both from Agawam Park in Southampton Village, the Hampton Classic Horse Show grounds in Bridgehampton, and Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, while parking and shuttles were available at the Shinnecock Indian Reservation and other nearby spots as well.

The town will undergo the test again in eight years, when the USGA is set to return to the area with the historic course hosting the Open for the sixth time in its history.

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