Rick Cleveland

U.S. Open shows us that golf has evolved greatly over the decades

Brooks Koepka drives off the 18th tee as he shoots a -16 under par to win the the 2017 U.S. Open Championship on Sunday at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis.
Brooks Koepka drives off the 18th tee as he shoots a -16 under par to win the the 2017 U.S. Open Championship on Sunday at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis. TNS

Do you remember when a 7,000-yard golf course was considered a ridiculously long monstrosity? Do you remember when a 300-yard drive was considered prodigious? Do you remember when golf pros hit 7-irons 150-yards and wedges about 100?

Do you remember when many of the world’s greatest golfers cut a figure that looked more like the Pillsbury doughboy than NFL safeties? And when there were five, maybe 10, golfers who really had a decent chance to win a major championship? Do you remember when even par was a score that could win the U.S. Open on a golf course that played less than 7,000 yards from the championship tees?

If so — if you remember all that — then you know the most recent U.S. Open, played last week at Erin Hills in Wisconsin — seemed, by comparison, almost a different sport entirely. Thirty-two players shot even par or better on a course that stretched to 7,800 yards and had fairways that were guarded by thigh-deep hay.

Brooks Koepka, ranked the 22nd best golfer in the world beforehand, won by four shots with a record 16-under par score. Built like Superman, Koepka won by hitting 375-yard drives and 170-yard pitching wedges and by sometimes flying a 3-wood over sand traps more than 300 yards in the distance.

He also won by sinking most every putt he stood over. At least that much hasn’t changed about golf. The guy who makes the most putts usually wins, and Koepka made a slew of them.

Still, all in all, this U.S. Open, more than any other, showed us that golf has evolved into an almost unrecognizable sport when played by today’s pros. Let’s put it this way, a modern day Rip Van Winkle, awakening after a 40-year hibernation, would watch these guys play golf and say, “What happened to gravity?”

Jonathan Randolph, who grew up in the Jackson area and played college golf at Ole Miss, shot rounds of 71-71-73-75 for a 290 total. That’s a two-over par score and would have won the U.S. Open as recently as 2007. In fact, two-over would have won the Open nine times between 1950 and 1970.

Randolph finished tied for 42nd, 18 shots behind Koepka.

It’s a different game. There are more world-class players from more places, who are bigger, stronger, more limber than golfers of yesteryear. The days of a pudgy golfer, puffing an unfiltered cigarette and exhaling smoke to test the wind at a U.S. Open, are gone. Instead of heading to the 19th hole after finishing, these guys head to the gym so they can become a little stronger, a little more limber and hit their 7-irons 210 yards instead of 200.

Yes, the equipment has much to do with the changes in the game. The space-aged clubs are more forgiving and can be swung at greater speeds. The golf balls fly further and straighter. But, you ask me, the golfers have changed more than the equipment. You could still put your average 8-handicap weekend player out on the the course at Erin Hills and make him play from the back tees, and he would need a calculator instead of a pencil to total his score.

And here’s the deal: There are so many more of these wunderkind golfers on the way. While Koepka was winning at Erin Hills, current Ole Miss prodigy Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch was winning the Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament of Champions in Pennsylvania. On a tremendously difficult golf course, Thornberry shot 13-under par over 72 holes and then won a three-hole playoff.

Playing the same quality of golf, he would have been high on the leaderboard at Erin Hills. He will be in the future.

When Jack Nicklaus won The Masters in 1965 the great Bobby Jones said of Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

These days, it seems, they all do.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.