Of the four major golf championships, the one that most closely builds its image around the profile of the golf course is the U.S. Open. The Masters locks Augusta National in place with tweaks every few years to add distance. The PGA now sets up its courses to pretty much follow the weekly model employed by the PGA Tour. And the Open Championship, with its rota of links courses, relies on weather to be the intervening factor each year.
It is the USGA that brought the term “Open setup” into golf’s lexicon. In recent years — in what might be called the “Mike Davis Era” — that set up has evolved. It was Davis who introduced the graduated rough. It was Davis who made the drivable par 4 fashionable. It was Davis who elasticized the golf course to expand and shrink strategically over the four tournament days. Firm, fast putting surfaces are still part of the Open setup. Penal rough is brought into play when necessary, such as ‘short’ Merion. We’ve even seen a rough-less U.S. Open at Pinehurst #2.
All this is relevant this week as the 117th U.S. Open raises the curtain at Erin Hills outside Milwaukee. For the second time in three years, the U.S. national championship will be played on a track still in its relative infancy and debuting as a major venue. Prior to Chambers Bay in 2015, you had to go back to Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis in 1965 to find a golf course under 10 years old hosting a U.S. Open.
For Davis, now the CEO and Executive Director of the USGA, the hope is that Erin Hills will be a redemption from the failures at Chambers Bay. With 652 acres to move galleries of 35,000 around the rolling terrain in Wisconsin, spectator access and viewing will not repeat the mistake in Seattle. With bent-grass greens, which thrive in northern climates, the mottled bumpy putting surfaces of two years ago will not be an issue.
What the field will discover is a course, massive in scope, largely treeless, with fairway widths unheard of for a U.S. Open. With a setup that tops out at just under 7700 yards this week, Davis has all the flexibility he wants in adjusting the playable length of the course. And with a rainy forecast in the picture, he may need to be agile in adjusting to the conditions.
Two-time U.S. Open winner and Wisconsin native Andy North issued another caution. “There are a lot of days the wind can blow 15 to 20 miles an hour out of the west, and about 2:00 in the afternoon the wind swirls and comes back off the lake. The temperature changes. That happens a lot this time of year,” he said Monday of tournament week. “If that’s the case, that becomes very difficult for the USGA, that they go ahead and set the golf course up figuring you’re going to have a certain velocity of wind for a certain direction, and if that switches around, all of a sudden you have some holes you might not be able to play.”
Because of its prairie-style look, some have called it a “links” like course, but I suspect Scots would lean toward a “parkland” label. It is a course with a troubled childhood and a prodigy lineage. Dan Fry, Michael Hurdzan and Ron Whitten teamed up to use a great piece of natural land to route more than construct the course they envisioned. Along with original owner, Bob Lang, they almost irreverently asked Davis to stamp their work ‘major eligible’ before a round had been played. Davis complied by committing to a USGA Championship, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Public Links, before the course’s ribbon-cutting. In the ensuing years, revisions have been made. Lang has been pushed aside, feelings have been hurt, but perhaps it will be case of “all’s well that ends well.”
Because of its length and wide fairways, early picks drift toward the game’s long hitters, such as reigning champion Dustin Johnson. For the first time since Pebble Beach in 1992, the Championship will be played at par-72 with four par-5s in the mix, also supporting the bomber crowd. The only history to draw from is the U.S. Amateur, staged there in 2011. However there are differences in the demands of a match-play amateur event and a best-in-the-world stroke-play event. Patrick Cantlay, the winner that year, does not fit the bomber description. Two other players who enjoyed success in that Amateur could thrive for different reasons.
Jordan Spieth went deep into that Amateur in ’11, so he enjoys a slight knowledge edge on most of the field. Spieth also solved the puzzle of the unknown at Chambers Bay for his first U.S. Open win. And whether a factor or not, both courses feature fescue grasses in the fairways, an aberration for the U.S. Open. Justin Thomas, who was eliminated one round earlier than Spieth in 2011, has the same knowledge edge and the advantage of tremendous length. Throw in three PGA Tour wins in the last nine months, and you can be assured his name is getting a lot of love in UK betting parlors.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, the current Open and Olympic champion summarized the challenge at Erin Hills: “Golf at the U.S. Open has always been a bit harder than at The Open or any of the other ones. We know Augusta has got the challenges, and The Open you’ve got the weather. The U.S. Open you normally play on golf courses that are tricked up just to the limits, sometimes over the limits and sometimes just underneath. So it’s certainly a tiring week. But it’s all worth it if you stand there with the trophy on Sunday.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.