UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – Phil Mickelson staggered off Chambers Bay after a 74 that put a big dent in his chances to finally win a U.S. Open. He was eight shots behind and had little hope but to hit the gas in a major where neutral is often the best gear.
When asked his plan for Saturday, Mickelson paused. How could he have a game plan if he didn't know what the USGA was going to do?
"It's a nice little challenge they're throwing at us," Mickelson said.
Shouldn't the golf course be enough?
The greatest mystery about this U.S. Open was Chambers Bay, an 8-year-old golf course built on a sand-and-gravel pit. Now there's a surprise every day.
One par 3 has two tees that are separated by more than 100 feet of elevation. Another hole can be the longest or shortest par 3 on the course, depending on the tee. The 18th hole can be a par 4 or a par 5. The first hole can be a par 4 or par 5. It changes every day.
What hasn't changed about the U.S. Open is the complaining.
That's typical from players with the highest scores. In this case, two of the strongest comments were from the co-leaders, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
USGA executive director Mike Davis, who has been mentioned as much as any player this week, moved the tee forward on the 18th hole to change it from a par 5 to a par 4 for the second round. It led to an awkward landing area off the tee. Spieth was seizing control of the U.S. Open, coming off three birdies in his last four holes, when he had no idea where to hit his tee shot. A bunker on the left side was not first choice.
And when he tried to take on too much because of a 10-foot deep bunker that Davis recently had installed, Spieth's shot caught the lip and tumbled about 10 yards away into the fescue rough.
"This is the dumbest hole I've ever played in my life," Spieth said.
He went on to make double bogey and did his best to keep calm, finish out a 67 and share the lead at 5 under. Spieth is walking commentary on the golf course in the best of times, and he wasn't bothered that microphones picked up his quick rant.
"I'm not going to put a smile on and be happy with the way I played the hole," he said. "I think the hole doesn't make sense because you can hit it down the left center of the fairway and end up in the right bunker in trouble."
Reed nearly wound up in the bunker. His ball somehow stopped a few feet from the edge, and he hit 7-iron to the middle of the green. From 50 feet away, on the putting surface, he really had little chance to get it close. Reed wound up 20 feet away, three-putted for bogey and a 69, and slipped into a tie with Spieth.
"I felt like I hit two quality golf shots and had to play Mickey Mouse on the green because the pin was ridiculous," Reed said.
For the rest of the field, or at least the 75 players who made it to the weekend, the biggest complaint was the condition of the greens. They look bad on television, which should not be a problem. Golf is not supposed to be about the color of grass. Smooth or rough, everyone has to play them.
But as bumpy as they became in the afternoon, it appears to be a case of hit-and-hope. And as always, it's a matter of opinion.
Davis said going into the week that the fescue with patches of poa annua actually became slicker and rolled truer in the afternoon. At most championships, the greens are fast and smooth in the morning, slightly slower and bumpier in the afternoon after so much foot traffic.
"When they get dry, they roll very smooth," Davis said on Wednesday.
The guys actually playing the course see it differently.
"It's borderline laughable at some of the greens and some of the pin positions," said Henrik Stenson, who fell out of a tie for the lead with a 74 on Friday. "And it's pretty much like putting on broccoli, as well. Obviously, the way you play is going to affect the scoring, but I'm sure many of my colleagues would fall in on a few of those remarks."
Ernie Els did.
"We have to go out there in front of millions of people and putt on these things," Els told Golfweek magazine. "The USGA, they have got to take a bit of responsibility."
None of this is new. The USGA has shown over the years that it really doesn't care what the players think, much less what they say. It likes to keep them guessing. No one knows what to expect until they arrive at the course.
Sixteen players were under par going into the weekend. No telling how many will be left at the end. And one tradition that never changes no matter where the U.S. Open is played is that whoever leaves with the trophy won't be complaining at all.