117TH CHAMPIONSHIP UNDERWAY TODAY
ERIN, WI. All the question marks will begin to be answered as the 117th US Open commences today in Wisconsin for the first time and coincides as the major coming out party for Erin Hills.
Located 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee the privately-owned daily fee course that’s open to the public will mark the US Open’s first return to the Midwest since Olympia Fields hosted the event in the greater Chicago area in 2003.
Erin Hills will play 7,741 yards — the longest course ever to host the championship of American golf. The course will also play to a par of 72 — the first time since Pebble Beach did likewise in 1992. The facility is on an expansive 657 acres and located on native kettle moraine and eskers formed 15,000 years ago when receding glaciers melted away.
Two previous USGA championships have been played at Erin Hills — the ’08 US Women’s Public Links and the ’11 US Amateur. The announcement of Erin Hills as a future US Open site was made in 2010 at Pebble Beach and the build-up has been intense as the event neared. The course was actually closed to all play for several months in order to ensure pristine playing conditions.
Wisconsin is no stranger to top tier golf competitions — but all of that is of recent times. In 2004 the State welcomed the PGA of America to stage its premier event — the PGA Championship — to Whistling Straits the mega-golf complex just north of Sheboygan. Since that event — two additional PGA Championships have been played, the last coming in ’15 and in three years in ’20 the Ryder Cup Matches will also be played there.
In years past it has been the domain of other Midwestern States such as Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota to reap the fanfare but Wisconsin now has clearly pushed itself to the front of the line.
Erin Hills is the design of three men — Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry who at one time were partners and Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest. A few of the competitors playing in this week’s US Open did play in the ’11 Amateur — most notably 2015 US Open champion Jordan Spieth — but for the most part the course has no intersection with the overwhelming number of players competing for the second major event of ’17.
The USGA’s desire to stage its grand event at a bonafide public facility — not those resort oriented — is not a new practice. In ’02 the US Open was played at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Long Island, NY. That was the first time that the US Open was ever played at a facility owned by a public jurisdiction. Since then the US Open has been played at Torrey Pines just outside of San Diego in ’08 and returned to Bethpage in ’09. Erin Hills is privately owned by operates on a daily basis – the cost being $280 and is waking only as power carts are not used.
Interestingly, Erin Hills is far from being flat. Uneven terrain provides for a wide array of different stances needed in order to play various shots. The fairways consist of fine fescue grass and if weather cooperates can provide an ideal “firm and fast” playing surface. Players will need to pay particular attention to when golf shots hit the turf with bounces potentially taking balls to unpredictable locations.
Erin Hills is also subject to heavy winds — mostly cross winds — which can impact shotmaking significantly. There are also several “blind” tee shots and approaches to the putting surfaces. World class professionals who are accustomed to predictability will need to be make adjustments constantly and to be sure to commit to their target lines when executing. Although fairway widths are significant — some in the range of 40-50 yards — there is also punishing fescue rough that can capture a player’s ball and likely even result in lost ball situations at times. Given the spring growing season — the USGA opted to cut back the fescue rough on four (4) holes during Tuesday’s practice rounds but make no mistake about it — those hitting errant shots will be in for a rude awakening if they land there.
Dustin Johnson comes into the event as the defending champion and secure for the moment as the number-one-ranked player in the world. The last golfer to successfully defend a US Open title was Curtis Strange in 1988-89. The issue for the 32-year-old Johnson is recapturing his early season form since he missed playing at Augusta because of a fall in his rental house just prior to the start of The Masters. Johnson arrived late Tuesday to the course after welcoming the birth of his second child.
Rory McIlroy, the number-two-ranked player returns to the competitive scene after nursing a sore back for several weeks. Among active players the Northern Irishman has won four majors but his last major triumph took place in 2014 at Valhalla during the PGA Championship. McIlroy has shown the wherewithal to be dominating when playing on all cylinders but at times a balky putting stroke has been his nemesis at critical moments.
US Opens are fascinating because they provide opportunities for lesser players to emerge and show their skills. At last year’s US Open at Oakmont it was the improbable Andrew Landry who came into the event as the 625th ranked player and had to successfully negotiate qualifiers at the local and sectional levels to advance to the Championship. Landry remained a fixture on the leaderboard until fading in the final round with a 78 and ultimately tying for 15th.
There’s been comments from a few of golf’s heavyweights, notably four-time winner Jack Nicklaus who weighed in during his host role at the recent Memorial tournament, that the USGA should favor old-time clubs that have long serve as hosts for the US Open. Adam Scott, the talented Aussie ranked 12th in the world, opined the USGA needs to be prudent on how Erin Hills is set-up in avoiding the penchant in creating a test of golf that borders on the extreme simply for the sake in keeping scores at or above par for the event.
Patience by the players will be tested as it always is with any US Open venue but more so here at Erin Hills since the venue is one much of the field has never played. The USGA promotes a “tough but fair” element for its marquee event. The issue always remains how close to the edge can toughness be promoted to the detriment of overall fairness.
Erin Hills will clearly command the initial spotlight. The reaction of the players and the quality of the play will certainly be main storylines as Wisconsin’s renowned dairyland plays host to America’s national golf championship. How the event plays out could well determine if a future US Open is indeed on the agenda here.