ERIN, Wis. -- The sternest test in golf is upon us, and the pressure is palpable -- although not just for the players.
The organization that runs the U.S. Open -- the United States Golf Association -- is feeling uneasy, like those attempting to hit shots out of the knee-high grass that borders the fairways. Grumbling at the year's second major championship is common; such is the nature of a tournament and course setup that tests the resolve of the best players in the world.
But last year's rules debacle concerning eventual champion Dustin Johnson at Oakmont (not to mention the one that occurred during the U.S. Women's Open won by Brittany Lang less than a month later) and the iffy playability of the greens two years ago at Chambers Bay, where Jordan Spieth won, has raised the stakes. Players were vocal in their disdain, calling out the USGA in an unprecedented way.
This puts the onus on the governing body to get it right this week at Erin Hills, where the 117th U.S. Open begins Thursday.
Mike Davis, the executive director and CEO of the USGA, has admitted mistakes while trying to offer perspective.
"I think we do feel more pressure,'' Davis said in an interview with ESPN.com. "In 2015 and 2016, for completely different reasons, we had controversies. ... Players were upset about that and rightfully so.
"Last year, the whole Dustin Johnson issue, the whole world was upset about that. You look at it and say, let's take a more holistic view. Chambers Bay had incredible drama [Spieth won his second straight major when Johnson 3-putted the final green]. What we're trying to do on that Sunday is really get the leaderboard moving in all kinds of ways. Last year we had terrible weather at Oakmont, and yet that golf course played beautifully under those conditions, and to see what Dustin Johnson did."
Adam Scott, the typically mild-mannered, soft-spoken Aussie, has not held back his feelings on the matter, and he is far from alone with his views. Whether it is how the course is presented, the way the rules are administered, what the USGA is doing with its vast haul of television rights fees, or how it impacts the rest of the game, the organization is on notice this week.
"Absolutely,'' Scott said. "They've taken criticism for the last two years, and I'm sure they don't like that. They're going to have to try and run a really good event. The ball's in their court. They control it all.
"Hopefully they get it right this time. Certainly, from just a playability standpoint for us, let's have something that's a challenge and interesting. And not just brutal.''
Those who play the game for a living have become fond of a derogatory description of the U.S. Open: a professional event run by amateurs.
The portrayal is a bit unfair, as the USGA has rules committee members who officiate not only at the U.S. Open but also at the three other major championships. PGA Tour rules officials and those from the European Tour are also involved at the U.S. Open.
Yet it is clearly the USGA's show, conducted in a different manner, typically with far sterner course conditions than are seen throughout the year.
"We like to think of it as the ultimate test in golf,'' Davis said, and often the result is golf courses that are taken to the brink, with narrow fairways, high rough, sloping greens with precarious pin positions, varying tee locations -- and frayed nerves.
In six of the past 12 U.S. Opens, the winning score has been par or higher -- a number that many believe is achieved artificially.
"Maybe it's time to do away with the even-par target,'' Scott said. "Just thinking about the bigger picture of the game of golf. If the major pinnacle event for them requires them to be the way they are, it doesn't set a good example for every other bit of golf that they try to promote. Maybe we should get the numbers out of our heads and have a new strategy.''
That task is made more difficult by going to a new venue such as Erin Hills, the first U.S. Open to be played in Wisconsin, located some 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee. The USGA always must walk a line between a course that plays too easily and one that becomes unfair.
Unlike last year at Oakmont in Pennsylvania (a venerable course that has hosted the U.S. Open a record nine times) and next year at Shinnecock Hills, which will stage the U.S. Open for the fifth time and where the second U.S. Open was played in 1896, Erin Hills has a more recent track record from the 2011 U.S. Amateur.
With so many historic and tested courses to choose from, the USGA is seen as tempting fate by going to a new venue for the second time in three years.
Wisconsin native Steve Stricker was one of the few pros to have played the course prior to the U.S. Open run-up. He went on an initial site visit back in 2004 with Davis and then-course owner Bob Lang. At the time, Davis was a USGA staffer who was two years away from being the tournament's chief setup person. (Davis still is involved in that aspect.)
At the urging of Ron Whitten -- a course architecture writer for Golf Digest who was involved in the design of the course along with architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry -- Davis was convinced to visit the property in 2004. He was in the area for the PGA Championship played farther north in Wisconsin at Whistling Straits and was stunned by the land. In 2010, the 2017 Open was surprisingly awarded to Erin Hills.
"I think the course is solid enough,'' said Stricker, 50, who last week qualified for the U.S. Open. "The conditions are going to be incredible because nobody's played it since September, other than a few groups. I think the course will hold its own.''
Stricker does not believe it is a risk to play the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, but understands why many of his peers might have reservations about the par-72 course that will play to approximately 7,693 yards. He is well-aware of the negativity directed at the USGA.
"It was deserved a little bit,'' said Stricker, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour. "And they realize it as well. The USGA has come in to talk to us as players. They don't like the way it went down the last couple of years. It's built up over the years. You can go all the way back to the Olympic Club [in 1998], when they put that pin back there [on the 18th green] and the ball wouldn't stop.''
Davis acknowledged there is risk at Erin Hills, especially so soon after taking the U.S. Open to another unproven venue at Chambers Bay in University Place, Washington.
"Our view is every once in a while to introduce and really showcase a new course, and that's actually a nice thing to do,'' he said. "In hindsight, if we're being 100 percent transparent, having two new sites in three years ... we should have spread those out a little bit more. I'm not saying anything derogatory about Erin Hills or Chambers Bay. It's just the newness part. Maybe it's once every five, six, seven, eight years. I think the timing of these, they came on board at almost the same time.''
Yet this is just the fifth time since 1976 that the USGA has taken the U.S. Open to a course that had not previously hosted the championship. After Atlanta Athletic Club (where Jerry Pate won in '76), the U.S. Open went to venues that had previously hosted the event until 1999, when the tournament was played at Pinehurst in North Carolina.
That was viewed as such a success that the U.S. Open has returned to Pinehurst twice, in 2005 and 2014. Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, New York, was another new venue in 2002 and got a return date in 2009.
"I think going to new places is great,'' said Billy Horschel, who was critical of the greens and the fan experience in 2015 at Chambers Bay. "Obviously, you have history at the others. But those places were new at one point, too.''
Starting in 2018, the U.S. Open goes to Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, New York; Pebble Beach in California; Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York;, Torrey Pines in San Diego; and then The Country Club in Massachusetts. In 2023, it's Los Angeles Country Club, followed by Pinehurst, Oakmont and back to Shinnecock Hills in 2026.
Of the venues on the previous list, only L.A. Country Club has never hosted a U.S. Open, but it opened in 1911 and five times was home to the L.A. Open.
"Will Erin Hills be as good as Pebble Beach, Shinnecock and Oakmont?'' Davis asked. "I guess time will tell. But they're not all like that. One thing these courses do is showcase great architecture.''
The USGA's role in the game goes well beyond running the U.S. Open. It conducts 12 other championships, including the U.S. Women's Open, the U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior. Along with the R&A, the USGA writes rules, approves equipment, oversees the handicapping system, does research on turf, and is behind numerous grow-the-game efforts.
A nonprofit organization, the USGA makes millions from its television-rights agreement with Fox, a 12-year deal that began in 2015 and brings in a reported $93 million a year, according to Golf World. (Previously NBC and ESPN aired the U.S. Open.) That amount does not include the various international broadcast partners, ticket sales, corporate hospitality and other sponsorships. The U.S. Open is the USGA's single biggest revenue source and helps defray the costs of every other tournament it runs, all of which lose money or break even at best.
"Our monies are going back to the game,'' Davis said. "Playing rules, equipment rules, handicap rules, amateur status rules ... we spend millions on a worldwide basis doing those things. We have tried to tell the players what we have done for the game worldwide. The development of new grasses, environmental issues, water issues. Shame on us for not communicating better.''
Early in 2017, the USGA announced it was raising the purse at this year's U.S. Open from $10 million to $12 million. The $5 million purse at this July's U.S. Women's Open is the largest on the LPGA Tour by $1.5 million.
And according to Davis, the USGA has a reserve fund in investment portfolios of approximately $320 million, which has caused some of the players to openly wonder where all the money is going.
Davis said a good bit of that reserve money is kept on hand in case of an emergency such as the U.S. Open being canceled because of some catastrophe; or perhaps in the event of a lawsuit if an equipment company believed one of its products should have passed the USGA's conforming tests.
At the Shell Houston Open and the Dean & DeLuca Invitational earlier this year, Davis and members of his staff met with PGA Tour players.
"The [PGA Tour] players were able to say a couple of things, and [the USGA was] able to tell us what they want to do going forward,'' Stricker said. "If there are no players, there's no U.S. Open. [The USGA has] to pay attention to that fact. It's the players who make the tournament. You look back at the history, the great champions, and I think they lose sight of that sometimes.''
Last year's rules issue with Johnson is still raw for many. Throw in the anchoring ban from a few years ago, and there has been considerable concern about the organization whose rules all golfers must follow.
Phil Mickelson said the Johnson ruling at Oakmont "absolutely'' hurt the USGA's credibility, and players such as Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Tiger Woods all took to social media in the aftermath to voice their displeasure.
Standing behind the 18th green after Johnson won the tournament, Jack Nicklaus -- who was there to be part of the awards ceremony -- congratulated Johnson. "I told [him], 'What you did with all that crap that they threw at you was pretty good,''' Nicklaus said
Mickelson praised the USGA for addressing the situation in the aftermath. Along with the R&A, the governing bodies fast-tracked a rule change that began Jan. 1 that does not penalize a player if he accidently causes the ball to move.
And on March 1, the organizations came out with an extensive proposal to overhaul the rules entirely in an effort to simplify and pare them down.
Davis would love it if his name isn't mentioned after the first golf balls are in the air on Thursday. He'd also love for the weather to cooperate, allowing for a firm, fast course -- the kind of test the USGA prefers.
Avoiding rules controversies would be nice, and a dramatic weekend of golf tends to make for a better story than the weekends that have seemingly overshadowed the tournament of late.
But no matter how the 117th U.S. Open turns out, it is clear that Davis and his staff -- despite recognizing some faults and doing their best to reach out -- still have some work to do.
When asked about that recently, Mickelson didn't back down: "I don't know if doing one thing right is going to fix that.''
Yes, a credibility issue still exists.