LOS ANGELES — My sincerest apologies for not checking in earlier—I had my literal wedding on Saturday, which is why there was no field ranking or substantive written preview content for this U.S. Open. I have, however, made (almost) a full recovery from the nuptial debauchery and have arrived on-site at the Los Angeles Country Club. The work hat is back on.
I was never going to miss this Open because it’s in my backyard—I grew up about five miles west of the golf course and have been lucky to play it dozens of times. Here, then, are a few preview/insider notes from my first full day at George Thomas’ other Los Angeles masterpiece.
1. The Playboy mansion sits directly adjacent to the 14th tee. The club has a few large and dense hedges to avoid any unsightly visuals, but they haven’t yet figured out how to protect against the sound. (That’s a joke; it’s not possible). When you’re playing LACC on a normal day it’s not uncommon to hear monkeys or pelicans yapping away from the wild animal park in the mansion’s backyard, or a helicopter landing on its helipad.
As for the relationship between Playboy and the club, proximity is about as far as it goes. Hugh Heffner tried for decades to become a member with no success; despite the club being a short drive from Beverly Hills and Hollywood, LACC has always maintained a much lower profile than fellow Los Angeles George Thomas titans Riviera and Bel-Air CC. The club has kept a pretty strict not-Hollywood policy throughout its existence, and while the membership is hugely influential and well-monied, there aren’t as many recognizable names to the general public as you might expect.
2. Which brings us to our next point—this week, a symbolic but also very real opening of LACC’s doors, is a total departure from the club’s reputation as an old-school, stuffy establishment stuck in the 1950s. A new generation has taken leadership of the club and has made a concerted effort to diversify the membership and share this gem of a property with the world. It started with the 2013 Pac-12 Championships, then the 2017 Walker Cup, and now the 2023 United States Open.
This is a place where, when I was growing up, you could not use your phone on the premises at all. There were these little closets in the clubhouse where you could make a phone call, but that was it. Pants are still required for men in any weather, though the USGA has ownership of the course this week and is letting the boys where shorts. I’ve also seen a few untucked shirts, which would get you a talking to immediately with the LACC I remember.
This week, then, is indicative of a marked shift in mentality at some of the world’s most exclusive clubs—they’re finally starting to open their doors. Pine Valley now has women members. There are videos of Cypress Point all over the internet. Augusta National did a video with Dude Perfect. Things, they are a changin’. It’s better late than never, and you can’t blame a younger generation of leaders for their predecessors’ stubbornness. This is all good stuff.
3. It’s fun to play, man. That sounds simple, but it’s really not the case with every major championship venue. A course like Winged Foot, or Bethpage Black, or Torrey Pines, you play those on any random day and you walk off feeling like you got kicked in the sack repeatedly. That’s still fun, but it’s a different type of fun, and LACC doesn’t normally have that affect on people.
Obviously, the USGA will set this track up as tough as is reasonable, and you’ve already seen the tried-and-true social videos of balls being dropped in very thick rough. There are certainly going to be a bunch of high numbers, but there should also be more birdie opportunities than you’d expect to see in U.S. Opens. The first hole, for example, is an easily reachable par 5. So is the 8th. No. 3 is a pretty straightforward par 4. Then there are beasts: the par-3 7th, which is really more of a par 3.5, and the 290-yard par-3 11th. I do expect guys to be sort of glued to par as is usually the case at U.S. Opens, but the way they get there will be different. Par is almost irrelevant this week.
“There's a bit of everything,” says world No. 1 Jon Rahm. “You start with, if you hit perfect drives, let's say, in 1, 2 and 3, you're pretty much looking at birdie options. And then you get kicked in the teeth with 5 and 4 and most likely 7, and possibly 9 depending on pin location. So you get a bit of everything.
“That's the way to describe it. That's a really good way to describe it. There is certain flow to the golf course in a U.S. Open that we haven't seen before. That I haven't. Maybe a course like Merion being a little shorter gives you a little bit, but this one definitely is a little bit different.”
4. The defense of the golf course is its bunkers. The fairways are rather wide, particularly for a U.S. Open, even if they’re super slopey and will play narrower than they look. The rough is U.S. Open-typical rough, but it’s the bunkers I have my eye on. LACC got a renovation from Gil Hanse, the same guy who restored the Country Club, and there are a bunch of similarities with the bunkers. Namely, the eyebrows of long grass that surround the bunkers. A bunch of balls that would otherwise fall into traps will get caught in that grass, which lead to uncomfortable lies and guys will have very little control of their ball. Then there’s the sand itself, which isn’t the packed and firm stuff you saw at Muirfield Village, for example.
“It's a tough golf course,” says Brooks Koepka. These bunkers are incredibly soft, which I've found quite interesting. If you're in these fairway bunkers, it's extremely penalizing because you're not going to get a good lie, number one, and it's not like the ball is going to funnel to the middle of the bunker. If it goes into the lip it's going to stay there. It could plug. Or if it gets in the back, the rough around these bunkers is quite difficult, too, so it's never going to quite chase in."
5. You’re surprised it took us this long to get to the merger stuff, eh? It’s been talked about this week, of course, but the general consensus is that the players don’t know much more than you or I do. And so they don’t really feel qualified nor motivated to give opinions on a matter that is so far from a finished product. The headline-catchy line of the day came from Jon Rahm, who hasn’t been afraid to give his opinion on anything LIV related through the past couple years, even if it goes against what some of his fellow players are saying.
“I think it gets to a point where you want to have faith in management, and I want to have faith that this is the best thing for all of us, but it's clear that that's not the consensus,” Rahm said. “I think the general feeling is that a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal from management. I understand why they had to keep it so secret. I understand we couldn't make it through a PAC meeting with more than 10 minutes after people spilling the beans right away in some article by you guys already being out there. So I get it. I get the secrecy. It's just not easy as a player that's been involved, like many others, to wake up one day and see this bombshell. That's why we're all in a bit of a state of limbo because we don't know what's going on and how much is finalized and how much they can talk about, either.
Koepka said there was similar shock on the LIV side of the aisle, as they had no advanced heads-up that a deal of this magnitude was anywhere close to happening. They were as stunned as we were, and it's hard to weigh in without additional information. Rory McIlroy took himself off the press conference list this week because what more is there to say than there was last week? It was a shock to everyone, but with the feds now snooping around too, there is just way too much action left to happen to weigh in with a premature take. It does feel like the golf course and this championships are already the story, and that was not the case on Tuesday of last year’s U.S. Open. It’s been nice.
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