SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — If the U.S. Open was suffering from an identity crisis, then a return to Shinnecock Hills should cure that.
But only to a point.
Jack Nicklaus was the strongest voice of concern a year ago, and it was easy to see why. The U.S. Open went to two modern courses in three years, Chambers Bay in 2015 and Erin Hills in 2017. The landing zones at Erin Hills were nearly wide enough on some holes to fit three fairways from a U.S. Open that Nicklaus grew up playing. It wasn't necessarily a bad test, just a different one.
And for those who spent the better part of four decades playing them, it was puzzling.
"I think the USGA has gotten away from their identity with what they're doing," Nicklaus said, though he conceded that Chambers Bay was unique and he had not been to Erin Hills or seen the way courses were set up.
He remembers a U.S. Open with narrow fairways, thick rough and firm, fast green. The ultimate test, he called it.
"I'm old-fashioned," Nicklaus concluded. "I happen to like what I grew up on."
Nicklaus played two U.S. Opens at Shinnecock Hills, and he might not recognize much beyond the magnificent, century-old views.
The fairways are 15 yards wider on certain holes compared with the previous three Opens on the William Flynn design, allowing slightly errant shots to roll into bunkers that were put there for a reason. And while the course has been lengthened by about 450 yards since the Open was last held at Shinnecock in 2004, the real change when the discussion turns to "bigger" is the greens. They have been restored to their original size.
The rough off the fairway is thick and dense enough to be a half-shot penalty, if not more. But around the greens? Gone. That's largely replaced by closely mown areas that will send the ball 20 yards or farther away — for really bad shots, far away enough to find mangled grass.
The history and old-school look of Shinnecock will make it feel like a traditional U.S. Open.
Mike Davis, the chief executive of the USGA, likes to think in different terms. One message from Monday's preview of the 118th U.S. Open was a stronger effort to stay true to the architecture. In other words, allow the course to play the way the architect intended and remain what the USGA endlessly calls the "ultimate test."
Davis conceded that the identity of the U.S. Open is more closely linked to the historic nature of the course more than how it is set up.
"Jack played it more as a cookie-cutter setup," Davis said. "What we've tried to do is more respectful to architecture, so we've done that here. In '04, some of these fairways were so narrow that you had fairway bunkers 10 yards out in the rough. That doesn't make sense."
He referenced the 1950s, when Joe Dey was running the USGA and Richard Tufts was the president, and there was a blueprint for the U.S. Open.
"It didn't matter if it was Oakland Hills or Winged Foot," Davis said. "There would be fairways a certain width, thick rough, fast greens."
But it was the toughest test in golf. More times than not, it was about survival.
The U.S. Open is not big on slogans — there is no name attached to the silver trophy. Davis says the "toughest test in golf" was a label from years back, although the USGA certainly didn't frown on it. He has never heard anyone at the USGA talk about protecting par, but a winning score at or above par seems to bring smiles.
The ultimate test?
Davis once denounced such an idea at Congressional on the eve of the 2011 U.S. Open.
"I think what we've stated over the years is that we want it to be a very difficult challenge," he said that day. "But I'm not sure we've ever used the ultimate challenge. Maybe somebody else has, but I don't believe the USGA has."
And then it did.
Diana Murphy first publicly mentioned it at Oakmont two years ago, and it has become a popular phrase among the blue blazers since then. Jeff Hall, the USGA's managing director of rules and competition, explained the notion of "ultimate test" as shot-making, course management and resolve both physically and mentally.
"Make no mistake about it," Hall said. "The U.S. Open is a grind."
That's an identity that should never change.