A U.S. Open provides an arduous test of a player’s mettle, both physically and mentally. In the championship’s first foray on the North Course at The Los Angeles Country Club, which will take place from June 15-18, that test has the potential to vary widely from day to day.
“In some cases, the setup folks will have decisions to make, and in others, the decision will fall to the players,” said the USGA’s Jeff Hall, who will be involved in U.S. Open course setup for the 18th time, a run that began with the 2006 championship at Winged Foot Golf Club. “Anytime there are different choices and strategies available, it makes the golf interesting.”
The North Course is noteworthy for the flexibility that designer George C. Thomas Jr., an LACC member and Golden Age architect, provided in his 1928 reworking of the layout that was originally designed by the renowned Herbert Fowler of England in 1920. In fact, given the tee options that Thomas laid out in tandem with William P. “Billy” Bell, he foresaw the possibility of holes playing at a different par from one day to the next.
“I can assure you that we won’t be playing No. 18 as a par 5,” said Hall of the 492-yard, par-4 finishing hole. “But in his writing about the hole, Thomas discussed using a back-left hole location and playing it as a par 5.”
Although there are no plans to alter the par of any hole during the four days of this year’s championship – as was done in the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when par was swapped on two holes in Round 2 – the flexibility the North Course offers will allow for holes to play far differently from round to round. Hall cited the par-5 14th as an example.
“It’s 623 yards on the scorecard,” said Hall of the dogleg-right hole that starts at the northwest corner of the club property and is the longest on the course. “But it features a green with a peninsula on the right front that, were you to move the tee forward 30 yards, perhaps a player might try to knock it on in two. Are you going to take it on, or are you not feeling that great about it? You can certainly lay something up and play a wedge for your third shot, but you’re giving the player a choice with that specific setup.”
Another example is the 480-yard, par-4 fifth hole, with a green that was restored to Thomas’ original design by Gil Hanse, who has worked on restorations of several U.S. Open courses, six of which have either recently hosted or are scheduled to host the championship.
“There’s a bunker in the front and the green extends around both sides of it, with a wonderful hole location on the front right,” said Hall. “We wouldn’t ask players to hit a longer iron into that small portion of the green, but if you move the tee up by 15 or 20 yards, I think it’s reasonable to ask that question. You can play very conservatively, but you’re going to leave yourself with a 30- or 40-footer. Thomas gives you a number of those opportunities throughout the course.”
One intriguing combination involves the par-4 sixth and par-3 seventh, holes with scorecard yardages that differ by only 46 yards. No. 6 is listed at 330 yards, but players will have the option of attempting to play their tee shot over the corner of the dogleg onto the green, 280 or so yards away. That’s comparable to the distance of the par-3 seventh at 284 yards, but the tiny plateau green on No. 6 draws comparisons with another strategic Thomas par 4 less than 5 miles away.
“Though No. 6 on the North Course is not as well-known as the 10th hole at Riviera in his pantheon of short par 4s, it’s certainly the hole I am most interested in seeing how [U.S. Open competitors] play it,” said Hanse, whose restoration work on the North Course with design partner Jim Wagner and consultant Geoff Shackelford began in 2006. “Someone could play ‘bombs away’ and just deal with wherever they end up, while others will play to the fairway and try to give themselves a better angle with a short club in their hands.”
As Hall noted, “If you try to hit the green off the tee, you could have trouble making par, based on the situation you face. For example, if you miss it short and left in the bunker, there’s no guarantee you will have a swing at it.”
As Hanse notes, the mental aspect of the U.S. Open challenge plays an important role, too.
“The sixth hole fits so well into George Thomas’ concept of half-par holes and courses within a course,” he said. “Players are going to step up on that tee and fully expect that they are going to make a birdie. Then you move onto the seventh, only 40 yards shorter and playing as a par 3 that really is a par 3½, where you just want to hit the middle of the green and get out with a par. It’s almost as though you want six shots between the two holes, but if you walk off No. 6 with a 4, then do you find yourself pressing on No. 7? There’s a lot of dominoes that can fall in the way these holes interrelate that I think will be exciting to watch.”
One of the more intriguing holes immediately precedes the daunting trio of closing par 4s. The par-3 15th is listed at 124 yards, but it played a mere 78 yards during one round of the 2017 Walker Cup Match, which featured players such as Scottie Scheffler, Collin Morikawa and Will Zalatoris on the USA side.
“If we play it at a similar yardage, it’s not a full shot for any of these guys,” said Hall. “But they’ve still got to factor in the wind and the firmness and hit a golf shot. I could see somebody having an 80-yard shot and playing it away from the hole, which seems crazy in this day and age, but maybe they’re not on top of their game or it’s the right play in a certain situation.”
You don’t have to look far for an example of a short hole having an outsized impact on a U.S. Open. Scheffler played the downhill par-3 11th at The Country Club, which measured just 108 yards on Sunday, in double bogey-bogey on the weekend last June to finish in a tie for second, one stroke behind Matt Fitzpatrick.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.