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USGA Hopes Erin Hills Offers Right Stuff

by Ron Green Jr. - June 12, 2017

For the longest time, the U.S. Open was about one thing.

The unforgiving challenge.

The clichés are familiar – single-file fairways, par is your friend, jungle-dense rough and so on – and they are grounded in the U.S. Open’s brutal reality.

The U.S. Open is still about the challenge, both mental and physical, but after the past two national championships, this one is about more than that.

The USGA needs this U.S. Open to go right.

Two years ago, the Chambers Bay experiment was well-intentioned but cosmetically doomed by failing greens and a miserable fan experience.

Last year at Oakmont, the essence of U.S. Open courses, there was the Dustin Johnson fiasco, a rules kerfuffle that was both frustrating and embarrassing.

Now comes Erin Hills, a dreamy-looking layout northwest of Milwaukee that has never hosted the U.S. Open before. It is a wild card, both from the players’ perspective and in how it comes off outside the ropes.

At a time when the USGA could use a sure thing – Pebble Beach or Pinehurst or Shinnecock Hills – the U.S. Open is taking another leap of faith.

Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director and CEO, understands the stakes.

“If we’re being completely honest, yes,” Davis said. “If you have several good (U.S. Opens) in a row, it’s almost like you have a chit.

“We do feel a little bit of extra pressure and this is a new venue.”

Chambers Bay was a new, ultra-modern venue and, though it produced one of the more memorable U.S. Open finishes, it is remembered for its bumpy, splotchy greens and its mold-breaking design, which shattered the stereotype of classic, big-shouldered courses. It wasn’t popular among traditionalists, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the agronomy issues threatened to overshadow the golf.

Erin Hills, whose designers had the audacity to ask Davis to consider it as a U.S. Open site before it was fully built, is similarly new and different. After this year, the U.S. Open gets back to its traditional roots but there’s a high curiosity factor at Erin Hills.

“I like the efforts they’re making,” Phil Mickelson said. “You have to take risks and it was certainly a risk and I don’t think it paid off, I think it was detrimental at Chambers Bay but there’s a chance that it will pay off at Erin Hills.

“I like the fact they were willing to go out on a limb and take a risk. It didn’t really work … I know what that’s like.”

Barring some late twist, Mickelson will not be at Erin Hills because the first round will conflict with his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation the same day. He joked after confirming his expected absence that he will watch from home as his colleagues deal with the bumps and bruises that come with every U.S. Open.

Assuming there is no significant rules issue like last year – “It was the most complicated rules thing I’ve ever seen,” Davis said – and this U.S. Open will be about the sprawling, rolling layout that is exposed to the wind.

Erin Hills can be stretched or shrunk depending on the USGA’s desires but it’s likely to play about 7,700 yards for this U.S. Open. That naturally raises the question of why, if there’s no significant evidence that the ball is going farther these days as the USGA and R&A have indicated with recent studies, is it necessary to play 7,700 yards?

That discussion will continue far beyond Erin Hills. The focus is on getting the setup right this week.

It has been characterized by some as a linksy layout but Davis said it’s more like a traditional heartland course despite its relative lack of trees. He calls it “an American original.” Erin Hills features several blind and semi-blind shots, adding another element of potential uncertainty to players, none of whom is particularly familiar with Erin Hills.

“I think the golf courses are set up so difficult for us, especially at a U.S. Open, that you’ve just got to do whatever you can to feel comfortable out there,” said Adam Scott.

The U.S. Open is traditionally about many things but it’s not about making the players comfortable on the golf course. Though Davis and others say the winning score does not drive their course setup, they are intent on providing a complete challenge. If it leans toward the difficult side, well, funny how that happens.

“In all of my U.S. Opens, this is one of the most complicated sites to set up,” Davis said. “It’s a really windy site. If you set up for a particular wind and it changes, the setup you’ve worked on probably won’t work.

“This course has a lot of similarities to Chambers Bay and, in some ways, it couldn’t be more different. Chambers Bay was 100 percent manufactured. There was nothing natural at all about it. This is almost completely the opposite. It has an old look.”

In a new place with new challenges, particularly this year.

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