How are pin placements decided for U.S. Open? It’s science beyond putting greens

Golfers Gary Woodland, Corey Connors and Adam Scott check the slope of the 14th green and their putting lines.
Golfers Gary Woodland, Corey Connors and Adam Scott check the slope of the 14th green and their putting lines. Pin placement requires much study in each round for players and caddies.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Location, location, location.

There’s both an art and science to picking ideal hole locations for the four days of the U.S. Open, and those discussions begin years before the event.

“It’s a 72-hole puzzle,” said Scott Langley, a former PGA Tour pro who is now senior director of player relations for the United States Golf Assn.

Langley is part of the setup team that decides on the precise Los Angeles Country Club hole locations each day, then at daybreak moves from hole to hole, setting those pins. The team needs to move quickly because the first wave of players is right on its heels.


The USGA allowed a Los Angeles Times reporter to tag along Thursday morning for the setup of a hole for the opening round.

New holes are cut on the greens each day, with the caddies getting pin sheets the night before so they can prepare their players. It’s a secretive and nuanced process that includes tiny adjustments depending on the weather. After all, millions of dollars can ride on the half-rotation of a golf ball.

Rickie Fowler of Murrieta and Xander Schauffele of San Diego shot 62 during the first round of the U.S. Open at L.A. Country Club, tying the all-time majors record.

June 15, 2023

“We have a plan that was pretty well set in March,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA chief championships officer, who hops in a golf cart at 5:45 a.m., oversees the daily process and brings a putter with him to test the locations. “We refined it again a couple times in May. Then we got here last week and really fine-tuned it and finalized the four that we wanted to use.

“It’s just a constant process based on the weather and really what the wind is going to do.”

The process is in no way haphazard. “We’re not throwing darts out there,” said Shannon Rouillard, senior director of championships.

The setup team might not be throwing darts, but sometimes the players are. Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele each shot 62 in the opening round, one stroke shy of the North Course record. Hours earlier, during setup under misty gray skies, Bodenhamer expressed concerns that low scores could be on the way.

 Jason Day hits out of a green-side bunker on the 8th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open.
Jason Day hits out of a green-side bunker on the 8th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. Pin placement green approaches.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“It really does come down to how firm this golf course is,” Bodenhamer said early Thursday morning. “We’re probably not going to get it as firm as we want today. That to me is the whole key to this place, having it be bouncy. Maybe it will be as we get into Friday or the weekend.

“People will assume when we set the golf course, that as the day goes on the greens will get faster as they dry out. They don’t, they get slower, because the grass grows.”

Of Thursday’s June gloom, he said: “Hate it. This kills us. It slows us down a lot on the putting greens. Just the mistiness makes it slow, like a dew on the putting greens.”

Bodenhamer said it’s also a common misconception that the USGA — by lengthening holes, growing the deep rough and picking the trickiest hole locations — is attempting to make a course as difficult as it can be.

Here’s a closeup look at all 18 holes of the North Course at Los Angeles Country Club, the site of the 2023 U.S. Open, which begins Thursday.

June 11, 2023

“It really isn’t,” he said. “If we wanted to, we could set the golf course up where 20 over would win. We could make it really stupid hard. We don’t do that. We want it to be tough but fair.


“We want the guys to hit every club that’s in their bag, including the one between their ears. Make them think. Give them choices and angles and different looks.”

That said, the USGA wants to make this the consummate test. It isn’t going to take it easy on players.

“The thing about about these pin positions is that it is the way for the USGA to get in the heads of the players, and the players hate having the USGA in their head,” said Michael Bamberger, longtime golf writer. “It’s the emotional fight between the player and the USGA. They kind of respect the USGA, and they kind of resent the USGA because, `They’re trying to get in my head.’ ”

The U.S. Open setup team also includes Jeff Hall, managing director of rules and the U.S. Open, and Darin Bevard, senior director of championship agronomy. The process involves strings and tape measures to pinpoint the exact locations, leveling tools and the like. Two LACC greenskeepers cut the actual hole, spray-painting it white inside to make it more visible for players and TV, and setting the pins.

Just as Sunday pin placements tend to be more difficult, heightening the drama down the stretch, there are reasons to put holes in certain locations in the opening round.

For instance, players exit the third green on the left side to walk up to the fourth tee box. That side of the green gets a lot of foot traffic. So it makes sense that the Thursday hole was on the middle left, because that spot was at its freshest. The setup team wouldn’t want to put a hole in that trampled area later in the tournament.


The USGA wants to see players use different clubs on the same holes from one day to the next, so no one gets too comfortable. At some point this weekend, the plan is to configure the par-three 15th so it’s a 78-yard hole, which would be the shortest in U.S. Open history.

“We have to get the right weather and the right wind,” Bodenhamer said. “Can’t have too much wind from the southwest or it doesn’t work. The green’s just too narrow in the front.”

What’s more, a lot of planning and coordination goes into a hole location in relation to the next tee box. For reasons of player safety and potential for distraction, it makes no sense to put those too close to each other. So putting a hole in a certain location might require moving the next tee box. It’s all connected.

“It’s really fascinating process,” Langley said, “that takes quite a bit of thought to put together over 72 holes to end up presenting what is a balanced test, one that maintains architectural intent and also kind of makes sense when you play it.”

Sometimes, history is a factor when it comes to hole locations. In 1982, eventual champion Tom Watson famously chipped in for birdie on No. 17 at Pebble Beach to take the lead over Jack Nicklaus in the final round of the U.S. Open. So in subsequent Opens, the USGA put the Sunday hole in the same spot.


Same goes for the winning putt by the late Payne Stewart at Pinehurst in 1999. His celebration was memorialized with a statue, with his leg in the air and fist thrust in the sky. That hole location became a Sunday staple.

But LACC is playing host to the Open for the first time.

“We don’t have that history here,” Bodenhamer said. “We’ll pick a hole location and maybe make a little history on Sunday.”

Complete coverage of the 2023 U.S. Open as Los Angeles Country Club, the first time L.A. has hosted a major tournament in more than 75 years.

June 18, 2023