LOS ANGELES — We have reached the halfway point of the United States Open, and before we settle in for the weekend, let’s pause and take a litmus test for something. It may help us tackle a philosophical question that is bigger than birdies and bogeys.

How did you feel when Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele opened the tournament with a pair of 62s, breaking a record for the lowest round in the history of the event?

If it annoyed you, you are not alone. Instead of celebrating Fowler and Schauffele’s feat, thousands of people hopped onto the internet to complain. If the tenor of these complaints felt familiar, it’s because they tend to resurface every time there are low scores in this tournament.

This is not the U.S. Open my father grew up with!

The USGA picked a terrible course!

We need more rough and more trees!

I grew up watching previous generations of golfers suffer. What the hell is this?

If you didn’t feel that way, then you’re probably having a good time watching the broadcast (commercial load aside, of course). Los Angeles Country Club’s North Course is an interesting venue, it’s hosting a major tournament for the first time, it was designed by a Golden Age architect, and the leaderboard is filled with big names and compelling storylines. Why should it matter that the 71.39 scoring average of the field was the lowest in history?

The contrast between the two positions represents two interesting but perhaps unanswerable questions:

  1. What do we want the U.S. Open to be in 2023?
  2. Is an old school U.S. Open bloodbath even possible with modern equipment?

The players, for the most part, have been fine with the set up this week. It’s clear they prefer it when the USGA errs on the side of caution; when they try to identify the best player without embarrassing the rest of the field.

“I've never been a fan of trying to make the golf course too tricky,” said Charley Hoffman, who shot a second round 67. “I mean, if someone goes out and plays good golf they deserve to shoot 8-under.”

They know from experience what’s coming.

“Obviously you start getting 10, 12-under par; now the USGA won't be happy,” said Padraig Harrington. “They're certainly going to try to hold those guys back and have a winning score in single digits.”

If you’re a fan who enjoys seeing the best golfers — one tournament a year — humbled and humiliated, the first two days must have felt like watching someone do the Griddy on Ben Hogan’s grave. Even a few players couldn’t resist admitting they wished the course had played a little harder.

“I'm surprised,” said Rory McIlroy, who posted rounds of 65 and 67, his lowest scores at a U.S. Open since he won the tournament in 2011 at 16-under par. “I didn't see the scores being as low as they are. I think the overcast conditions yesterday combined with that little bit of rain in the morning, I think the course just never got firm at all. It's got the potential to get a little firmer and faster over the next couple days, which will make the scores go up a little bit. We'll see what it's like at the end of the week. It's still early in the week. And yes, the course has played maybe a little easier than everyone thought it would, but wouldn't be surprised on Saturday/Sunday to see it bite back, which going back to your question I feel is what a U.S. Open is all about. It should be tough. It should be just as much of a mental grind out there as a physical one.”

No golfer over the last five years has been better at handling the mental aspect of hard setups than Brooks Koepka. He’s won two U.S. Opens in that span and finished in the top 4 three more times during his career. He’s often stated that difficult conditions give him an advantage over most of the field, both physically and mentally, so it was not a surprise to hear him say he was unimpressed with LACC through two rounds.

“I'm not a huge fan of this place,” Koepka said. “I'm not a huge fan of blind tee shots, and then I think there's just some spots that no matter what you hit, the ball just ends up in the same spot. I think it would be more fun to play on just like a regular round than it would be a U.S. Open. I mean, there's, what, two 8s yesterday? That doesn't happen.”

So what would Koepka’s ideal U.S. Open score look like?

“I think it should be around par,” he said, while conceding that might be impossible at this course. “I think if you made the greens a little bit faster, but I don't know if you really can. Then it might be interesting, that's for sure.”

The trouble with following Koepka’s philosophy is that the USGA has tried to move away from protecting par, in part because the players pitched a fit when they felt setups went over the edge.

In 2018, Zach Johnson fired some pointed criticism at the USGA after only three players broke par on Saturday at Shinnecock. “They've lost the golf course," Johnson infamously told Sky Sports. "When you have a championship that comes down to sheer luck, that's not right.” That same day, Phil Mickelson hit a putt while it was still moving on the 13th hole, an act many felt he did to protest an unfair set up. In 2019, Golf Digest reported that at least 15 of the game’s best players, including McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, had at one point discussed boycotting the U.S. Open over their frustrations with the event.

It’s important to consider all that context when considering how we arrived at the current moment. John Bodenhamer, the USGA’s senior managing director of championships, seemed borderline melancholy when he showed up on Golf Channel Thursday night to try and defend the organization. The emotional undercurrent of the interview was obvious: If the weather softens the course, we’re powerless.

“There is so much unknown about Los Angeles Country Club,” Bodenhamer said. “We couldn’t have predicted what happened [Thursday]. I’ll tell you what we won’t do. We’re not going to force anything. We could do things that would make it stupid hard. But we’re not going to do that.”

Golf Channel’s Rich Lerner, seemingly speaking for the thousands of frustrated fans, wanted to know if the USGA was fearful its championship might be losing its identity as the toughest test in golf. Bodenhamer didn’t push back.

“Yes,” he said. “I think we want to keep that. That’s our DNA. Those are things that have been our heart and soul for 125 years. So we’re paying attention and we’ll adjust accordingly. But we’ll take the long-term look.”

Not every U.S. Open venue needs to have the same identity, of course. It’s impossible to make Oakmont, Pinehurst and Pebble Beach play similarly, and they’re three of the USGA’s anchor venues. Dustin Johnson, who won the U.S. Open in 2016 at Oakmont, said all the consternation over how low the scores are is lost on him.

“I mean, it doesn't really matter. I don't care,” Johnson said. “However they want to set it up is fine with me. If you're playing well it doesn't really matter the setup. I think if you look at the venues over the last seven or eight years or ten years, they're all different. They're all set up different. I think this course is great. It's a great venue. It's in perfect condition. It feels like a U.S. Open.”

It’s also impossible to have this debate without discussing the elephant-sized driver head in the room. The 16th hole at LACC is 542 yards and plays as a Par 4. Scottie Scheffler hit a pitching wedge into the green on his way to making birdie on Thursday. Rory McIlroy hit the green with a sand wedge on Friday. If the USGA is still compiling evidence for its Model Local Rule proposal, those two club selections would be a decent exhibit. Because we have reached the point where it’s impossible to logically argue that the U.S. Open should return to being so hard players are struggling to break par, but also they should continue to have wedges into 542-yard Par 4s.

“I think I can speak on behalf of the R&A when I say both the R&A and the USGA believe doing nothing is a bad idea for the long-term future and health of the game,” said USGA CEO Mike Whan at the start of the week.

There are, of course, alternative proposals. Johnny Miller, who until Thursday held the record for the lowest round in U.S. Open history, said he wants to see a return to thick rough and narrow fairways. LACC has deep rough in many spots but also has some wide fairways that funnel the ball into the rough when it’s firm. It has not been as firm as anyone had hoped.

“I'm a big believer, growing up, that the U.S. Open was all about the rough,” Miller said. “It wasn't like the greens were crazy fast. That's what I always thought about when I thought about setup for the U.S. Open, was not this graduated rough, but is about if you miss the fairway you're going to pay a price. I still think that's the way -- if I was president of the USGA, growing the rough would be a high priority.”

But not all Grow The Rough arguments are the same. Matt Fitzpatrick, the 2022 U.S. Open champion, said he doesn’t love the fact that LACC punishes small misses more severely than big ones.

“I think the big issue around this place is you miss the fairway by a yard and you got to chip out. I just think that's the course setup,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’ve played a lot of places recently that have been like that. I think it's very poor when golf courses are set up like that. You can hit it 40 yards off line and you got a lie. So I think there needs to be more done to sort of help more accurate players off the tee by missing the fairway a yard you shouldn't have to be chipping it out. If you miss it by 40, you should be having to chip it out.”

One thing should also be kept in mind as we contemplate all this: We’re only halfway through the championship. The course has already shown some teeth. The sun is shining and the ground is getting firm. Friday’s round was almost a full stroke harder (.84) than Thursday’s. The afternoon wave was 1.68 strokes harder than Thursday. The masochists may have their wish yet.

“You just wait until this place firms up,” Schauffele said. “It's going to be nasty.”

Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up.

Email him at kvv@nolayingup.com