SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y., June 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. Open, won by Brooks Koepka on Sunday, regained much of its reputation as the toughest test in golf when it staged a exemplary championship for three-and-a-half days at Shinnecock Hills.
Had it not pushed the envelope with some needlessly risky pin positions near the edges of the greens on Saturday, there would probably be near universal praise for the way the U.S. Golf Association (USGA) carried out its 118th national championship.
But that risk came back to bite it when strong winds and low humidity rendered a couple of hole locations demonstrably unfair late in the third round, penalising some well executed shots, which USGA CEO Mike Davis acknowledged was unacceptable.
Rather than identifying the world’s best players, the USGA caused some of them - and in the process itself - a degree of embarrassment.
Order was restored on Sunday when officials chose the side of caution, dumping plenty of water on the greens overnight and situating the cups more often than not near the centre of greens, away from severe run-offs near the edges.
There were still plenty of high scores, but an average of 72.2 on the par-70 course suggested the set-up had been just about right, though it was helped by winds that did not blow quite as strongly as the previous day.
The USGA got lucky, though, in that Koepka won. He played late on Saturday.
Had Tony Finau or Daniel Berger hoisted the trophy, the criticism might well have got louder.
Both played early on Saturday, shooting 66 before the greens wilted under the baking sun, and neither would have expected to be tied for the lead at the end of the third round.
Golf is not meant to be fair but Finau and Berger, through no fault of their own, were provided with such an advantage that had either won, the victory might well have left a sour taste.
Finau was ranked 37th in the world while Berger started the week ranked 43rd — both accomplished players but yet to make their mark in major championships.
In the end, the top four finishers — Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed — all started the week ranked in the top 13, so nobody could say it was a fluke leaderboard.
On a one-over-par 281, Koepka was a worthy champion — the seventh to win back-to-back and the first since Raymond Floyd (1986) to open with a score of 75 or higher. Floyd’s victory also came at Shinnecock.
For all the criticism heaped at the USGA for being “reactionary”, it faces a tough task.
A fine line separates a stern test of a player’s mental and physical arsenal from an unfair one, and the association will again be trying hard not to cross it next year at Pebble Beach. (Reporting by Andrew Both; editing by John Stonestreet)