Location, location, location.
There is both an art and a science to selecting ideal holes for the four days of the US Open, and these discussions begin years before the event.
“It’s a 72-hole puzzle,” said Scott Langley, a former PGA Tour pro who is now senior director of player relations for the United States Golf Assn.
Langley is part of the setup team that decides the exact Los Angeles Country Club hole locations each day, and at dawn he moves from hole to hole setting those pins. The team must move quickly because the first wave of players is right on their heels.
The USGA allowed a Los Angeles Times reporter to tag along Thursday morning for the setup of a hole for the opening round.
New holes are cut on the greens every day, with caddies given pin sheets the night before to prepare their players. It’s a secretive and nuanced process that includes slight adjustments depending on the weather. After all, millions of dollars can ride on the half-spin of a golf ball.
“We have a plan that was pretty well set in March,” said John Bodenhamer, USGA chief championship officer, who hops in a golf cart at 5:45, overseeing the daily process and taking a putter with him to test the placements. . “We refined it again a few times in May. Then we came here last week and really fine-tuned it and finalized the four that we wanted to use.
“It’s just a constant process based on the weather and really what the wind is going to do.”
The process is by no means random. “We’re not throwing darts out there,” said Shannon Rouillard, senior director of championships.
The setup team may not throw darts, but sometimes the players do. Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele each shot 62 in the opening round, one stroke shy of the North Course record. Hours earlier, during the set-up under hazy gray skies, Bodenhamer expressed concern that low scores could be on the way.
“It really comes down to how firm this golf course is,” Bodenhamer said early Thursday morning. “We’re probably not going to get it as firm as we want today. That to me is the whole key to this place, that it should be bouncy. Maybe it will be when we get into Friday or the weekend.
“People will assume when we put the golf course that as the day goes on the greens will get faster as they dry out. They don’t, they get slower because the grass is growing.”
Of Thursday’s June gloom, he said, “Hate it. This is killing us. It’s slowing us down a lot on the putting greens. Just the dew makes it slow, like dew on the putting greens.”
Bodenhamer said it’s also a common misconception that the USGA — by lengthening holes, cultivating the deep rough and picking the hardest holes — tries to make a course as difficult as it can be.
“It really isn’t,” he said. “If we wanted to, we could set up the golf course where 20 over would win. We could make it really stupid. We don’t. We want it to be tough but fair.
“We want guys to hit every club that’s in their bag, including the one between the ears. Make them think. Give them options and angles and different looks.”
That said, the USGA wants to make this the consummate test. It’s not going to take it easy for the players.
“The thing about these pin positions is that it’s the way for the USGA to get into the heads of the players, and the players hate to have the USGA in their heads,” said longtime golf writer Michael Bamberger. “It’s the emotional battle between the player and the USGA. They kind of respect the USGA and they kind of resent the USGA because, ‘They’re trying to get into my head.'”
The US Open setup team also includes Jeff Hall, executive director of rules and the US Open, and Darin Bevard, senior director of championship agronomy. The process involves strings and measuring tapes to locate the exact locations, leveling tools and the like. Two LACC greenskeepers cut the hole itself, spray paint the inside white to make it more visible to players and television, and set the pins.
Just as Sunday’s pin placements tend to be more difficult, adding to the drama down the stretch, there is reason to put holes in certain spots in the opening round.
For example, players exit the third green on the left side to go up to the fourth tee box. That side of the green gets a lot of foot traffic. So it makes sense that Thursday’s hole was in center left, because that spot was at its freshest. The setup team doesn’t want to hole up in the trodden area later in the tournament.
The USGA wants to see players use different clubs on the same holes from one day to the next so no one gets too comfortable. At some point this weekend, the plan is to configure the par-three 15th to be a 78-yard hole, which would be the shortest in US Open history.
“We have to have the right weather and the right wind,” Bodenhamer said. “Can’t have too much wind from the southwest, otherwise it won’t work. The green is just too narrow in front.”
In addition, a lot of planning and coordination goes into a hole location in relation to the next tee box. For player safety and the potential for distraction, it makes no sense to place them too close to each other. So putting a hole in a particular spot may require moving the next tee box. It all ties together.
“It’s a really fascinating process,” Langley said, “that takes a lot of thought to put together over 72 holes to end up presenting what’s a balanced test, one that maintains architectural intent and also makes sense when you play the. “
Sometimes history is a factor when it comes to holes. In 1982, eventual champion Tom Watson famously birdied No. 17 at Pebble Beach to take the lead over Jack Nicklaus in the final round of the US Open. So in subsequent Opens, the USGA put the Sunday hole in the same location.
The same goes for the winning putt by the late Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999. His celebration was commemorated with a statue, his leg in the air and his fist thrust into the sky. That hole location became a Sunday staple.
But LACC is hosting the Open for the first time.
“We don’t have that history here,” Bodenhamer said. “We’ll pick a hole and maybe make some history on Sunday.”