Chip Shots: Shinnecock to Alter Format

Note: As you read Chip Shots, I just wanted you to know that this week’s edition is coming to you straight from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico as I’m on a seven-day cruise so I can re-charge my batteries for what I know will be a very demanding and exciting ‘Major’ golf season.

The very first U.S. Open Championship was played back in 1895. This upcoming June marks the fourth time it will be contested at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.

In 1986, circumstances changed the fortunes of the United States Golf Association (USGA), the U.S. Open’s governing body, in a huge way. Sometime in the early 80s the USGA made the decision that they wanted the U.S. Open to be played at Shinnecock. The first time was in 1895 and it was the second ever U.S. Open Championship.

A meeting was held in the Shinnecock Clubhouse, which is the oldest clubhouse in the country. The USGA presentation was made by Frank Hannigan, the executive director of the USGA at the time. As the meeting was coming to the end, the membership let the USGA know that they weren’t really interested in hosting a U.S. Open at Shinnecock.

Hannigan, on the spur of the moment, suggested that the USGA might just rent the course and run the event themselves. The Shinnecock membership liked that idea and an agreement was reached.

The silver lining was that all U.S. Open Championship merchandise was part of the deal and all sales would be handled by the USGA. That strategic move has put hundreds of millions of dollars in the coffers of the USGA.

Plans for this year’s U.S. Open have the merchandise tent open for business starting the Thursday through Sunday the week before, and the good news is that it will be open to the public with no ticket required to gain admission to the merchandise tent on those four days.

The title said…Shinnecock to alter format…well, for the first time ever there will be no 18-hole playoff on the Monday after in the event of a tie after 72 holes. The USGA decided to change the rules earlier this year, which means that in the event of a tie a two-hole aggregate playoff will decide the winner—unless it doesn’t. If it’s still tied after two holes of aggregate score, then sudden death match play will be played until there is a champion.

So, the question is why mess with this 18-hole playoff tradition? The obvious answer is that it is not ideal for television. Fox Sports, who paid billions for the exclusive TV rights, has to be delighted with the new format that all but guarantees them a champion Sunday.

Based on some excellent research by Gary Van Sickle, current president of the Golf Writers Association, had this new format been in place in previous US Opens, history would be drastically different.

In 1913, a 21-year-old caddie, Francis Ouimet, won in an18-hole playoff. With this new system, he would have lost. Sam Sneed, one of the all-time greats in the game, never did win a U.S. Open but under the new rule, he would have won the 1947 US Open instead of Lou Worsham. In 1950, Ben Hogan, just 16 months after his near-fatal bus crash, would have lost at Merion if this new format was in place. In 1963, an 18-hole playoff identified Julius Boros as champion. In a two-hole playoff, the winner would have been Jacky Cupid. Don’t you just love it? These are just some examples how golf history as we know it would have been totally different.

It’s no secret television pays the bills and gets to call the shots, but, having covered this game for such a long time, I wish that in the battle of the T’s, tradition versus television, that tradition had come out on top.