SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- If you hated seeing players putt the ball off the green Saturday at the U.S. Open, if you're still mad that some of the approach shots they hit looked like they should have been close but instead ran into bunkers, I have a heartfelt message for you:
Watch the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands next week. It's a lovely event the players have grown to adore. The fairways and greens should be lush, and the golf should be serene. It's OK if the extreme difficulty of Shinnecock has you unsettled.
But if you're like me, and you love seeing the best players in the world tested and pushed to their breaking points, then Saturday was one of the most entertaining days we've had at the U.S. Open in years.
I loved every minute of it, even when it was stupid. And it was, at times, stupid.
It was also wildly entertaining.
I'm now convinced the USGA can't hold its biggest championship without it descending into some version of chaos. All you can do is laugh at this point. For months, the USGA swore it had learned from past mistakes, and yet here we are again. It's going to screw it up, annually, and that's part of the challenge presented to the players. That's part of the charm of this event. Maybe we're at the point where the player who can somehow manage his emotions and hit great golf shots despite all the USGA's bumbling should be awarded more than one major. Winning the U.S. Open is worth at least 1.75 PGAs.
No, golf shouldn't be this extreme every week, either on Tour or at your local muni. In fact, it couldn't be like this every week, because if it was, all the grass would die from lack of water and no one would want to play the game. We'd snap a 3-wood over our knee or throw our putter into a lake.
But guess what? It isn't this every week. Not even close. Golf like this happens once a year. The U.S. Open is supposed to be extremely hard. Was it too hard for Saturday's afternoon groups? Maybe. But it's supposed to be mentally taxing and frustrating. It's supposed to have its own identity.
Saturday proved, once and for all, the U.S. Open's true identity is its glorious madness.
We had it all during the third round. Allegations of unfair pins. Allegations of cheating. Players cursing and complaining. Even outside the ropes, it was a fiasco. Fans on the course were complaining that some of the concessions were running out of food. The stands were nearly empty as the final group came through because the last trains were scheduled to leave Long Island at 7 p.m., meaning fans who traveled from New York City had to bail long before Dustin Johnson walked up the 18th fairway.
Johnson, who made only four bogeys over his first 36 holes, made four bogeys and a double in the next nine holes. He had to play a shot backward from the rough. He shot 77, yet somehow he is still tied for the lead headed into the final round. "I didn't feel like I played badly at all," Johnson said. "Seven over, you know, is usually a terrible score."
Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson were put on the clock for slow play on a day when any putt that trickled past the hole might run off the green. Stenson got heckled to the point where he stared down a fan and told him to zip it. Phil Mickelson seemed to briefly lose his mind during his round, slapping a ball that was rolling off the 13th green while it was still moving -- a two-stroke penalty that nearly got him disqualified but instead left him with a 10 on a hole. Then, he conjured up an explanation that it was a stroke-saving move he had always longed to try on an extreme green. He and playing partner Andrew Johnston couldn't stop laughing as they walked to the next tee.
"I've had multiple times where I've wanted to do that," Mickelson said in a post-round interview session in which he was grilled by a horde of reporters like a U.S. Senator in the halls of the Capitol. "I finally just did it."
It was completely, totally wild. The two guys who will play in the final group on Sunday -- Daniel Berger and Tony Finau -- teed off more than four hours before the leaders went off. They each shot 66. They went from 45th place to first place, because they might as well have been playing a different golf course.
"I barely made the cut," Finau said. "Going into [Saturday's third round], I needed something special to happen to even have an outside chance."
Two hours later, he was tied for the lead.
How strange was it? Patrick Reed shot a 1-over par 71, and he climbed the leaderboard 19 spots into a tie for seventh. He then explained, in typical Reed bravado, he thought the course was fine.
"It easily could have been a 66, 67 day, easily with not really blinking or doing anything crazy," Reed said. "I feel like the whole golf course was fair, even with how the wind is blowing, even with 13 and 15 where those pins are. There are going to be a lot of guys that complain about those two holes, but if you hit two quality golf shots on both of them, you leave yourself in the right spot."
Reed, though, was in the minority. Brooks Koepka said he thought the greens were on the verge of dying. Zach Johnson said he felt bad for the membership because the USGA had "lost the golf course." Late Saturday, ESPN texted with one of the players who played in the afternoon to ask about the course setup, especially after USGA executive director Mike Davis went on TV and tried to defend course, while at the same time conceded it might have gone too far. The player -- who agreed to be candid as long as ESPN didn't use his name -- unloaded.
"F--- him and the USGA!!" the player texted.
You can sympathize with the players, but only to an extent. Think about this: For the most part, professional golfers are incredibly pampered. They play, generally, on private courses that have the resources to make their greens and fairways pristine. It's considered a huge scandal on tour when someone doesn't rake a bunker properly. Professional golfers require total silence when they're standing over a shot. None of them have to deal with the annoying realities we regular golfers face every weekend: cars honking in your backswing; pitch marks that don't get repaired; live animals on the course; lazy course marshals who don't enforce pace of play; rocks on greens; and mud in the fairways.
At the U.S. Open every year, it's fun to see the most talented players in the world get a taste of the stress we plebeians often go through just to squeeze in a weekend round. No one is promised birdies in golf, and sometimes you feel elated just to make a par.
Every major is different. The Masters is classy, exciting, and a bit too stuffy for its own good.
The Open Championship is ancient, cheeky, and usually decided by weather.
The PGA Championship is a lot of birdies and begs for your respect.
The U.S. Open is, and probably always will be, a mess. A delightful, tumultuous mess. At this point, I don't even want it to be a well-run, efficient affair. I'm leaning into its absurdity and, at this point, you probably should, too. It will soften the blow for when the USGA screws up Pebble Beach next year.