In having been on-hand and covering the 117th US Open Championship at Erin Hills I had the opportunity to observe the play of the world's best golfers. I had previously played the course in late '15 when the PGA Championship was hosted nearby at Whistling Straits.
A couple of comments having played the course and seeing the world's best handle the challenge provided during the US Open.
Erin Hills was properly set-up by the United States Golf Association (USGA) for the event. In years past the USGA would have been tempted to narrow the fairways to inane narrow widths and such an action would likely have simply caused the same kind of slog one has seen when US Opens are held as players cannot really recover but must simply hack a wedge back out to the fairway.
Providing players with much wider fairways worked very well -- allowing players to go full bore with driver as many times as they wished. Contrary to the naysayers who thought the final round total score from winner Brooks Koepka was ridiculously low -- the same course inflicted sufficient punishment to the top three ranked players in the world -- Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day -- all of whom missed the cut. The first time that has happened since the world rankings were started in 1986.
The key for Erin Hills is what was missing for much of US Open week -- wind. The course is set on rolling terrain and any type of breezes can impact play in a big time way as there's nothing really there to stop it from happening. Erin Hills also had some rain fall during the event and the "fire" in the fairways was doused so that players could take liberties in hitting drivers to the corners of certain holes and still know there balls would not scamper into the high deep grasses.
Part of the dilemma Erin Hills had to overcome was the poor conditions of the putting greens that were in play at Chambers Bay in '15 and the rules debacle the USGA handled -- or mishandled as the case demonstrated -- at Oakmont in '16.
The USGA took a clear page from the R&A in allowing the players to show their skills without making slight mistakes into draconian penalties.
It's important to point out that the trio of designers -- Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten - took what the site provided and did not attempt to bulldoze the site to the umpteenth degree. The Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin is truly a fascinating geographical location and the impact caused when the glaciers retreated provided for a wonderful site where the land heaves and hoes in all sorts of manner with a pure sand base to work with. In many ways, Erin Hills is a good example of heathland golf located in America's heartland.
One of the virtues of Erin Hills was the decision made by Dr. Hurdzan to go with fescue grass on the tees and fairways. The club did its part as well by not having power carts after the initial season. Ownership went one step further -- closing off all play when the '16 season came to an end in October. The playing surfaces for the '17 US Open were nothing short of stellar.
Much of the flow of Erin Hills is in a east-west and west-east pattern. There are a few exceptions -- the opening hole, the par-3 9th and par-4 10th are examples routed differently. To the credit of the design team -- the course does provide for birdie opportunities -- the par-5 1st and the short par-4 2nd clearly gives an opening -- one which Koepka seized during the final round.
The long par-4 3rd proved to be a real challenge for the best players at the US Open. The greensite located above the players and having sufficient contour but not becoming overly so. I really like how the edges of a number of the greens were caught to fairway height -- thereby propelling errant approaches further away from the pin location.
The dog-leg left par-4 8th is a first rate hole. The bend in the fairway is countered by the manner in which the land falls to the right. Power players can take on the bend of the hole but anything pulled will be severely penalized as it should. The green is another well done location -- set on top of a ridge and mandating proper adjustment to both trajectory and distance.
The most controversial hole for the US Open and likely for everyday play centers on the par-3 9th. I personally like the hole -- you play from an elevated tee and have to be prepared for the crosswinds which routinely blow -- either right-to-left or left-to-right. The design team created some of the most demanding bunkers possible but given the fact that most players were using short irons and even wedges I find it completely appropriate. The demands of the 9th at Erin Hills were no more difficult than what players encounter when playing the renowned "postage stamp" hole at Royal Troon. But professionals are quick to howl when such a hole exposes them so blatantly.
The inner half of holes at Erin Hills is well done. A top tier mix with land changes happening over and over again. Players need to shape shots accordingly and when done successfully can result in ample rewards. One of my favorites is the spectacular par-4 12th. Here you face a daunting tee shot from a visual perspective. The hole bends to the right with a huge mound of deep high fescue awaiting the errant shot to that side. Strong -- and accurate players -- can reap the benefit of "speed slot" if the tee shot is shaped accordingly. The bowl-shaped green is nicely done and if an approach is played well a good birdie opportunity is present.
The par-5 14th is a brilliant hole -- daring players for the ultimate risk in attempting to get on the green in two strong blows but providing enough pushback for those failing to execute at a top tier level. The green design is especially well done -- tilting to the right and featuring run-offs for any approach that is not properly played.
The short par-4 15th received plenty of attention and rightly so. The USGA provided different tee locations and while the hole was birdie-fest on Saturday's 3rd round when the wind was non-existent -- the same hole was utterly devilish on Sunday's final round with the wind howling and into the player's faces. Koepka showed plenty of courage in going deep with his approach to a pin tucked hard to the right side. His birdie there effectively sealed victory for him. Having a short par-4 in the mix was a real plus in so many ways. The 15th has numerous challenges and decisions to make no matter what the tee box is. On Sunday's last round -- it was the 15th that played the toughest.
The final three holes at Erin Hills played easy for Sunday's final round but that doesn't mean the architecture was poorly done. The par-3 16th features a very narrow green bracketed by narrow and deep bunkers. The long par-4 17th demands a well-hit drive that turns from right-to-left. Although it's not likely appreciated to the fullest degree -- the greensite at the 17th is one of the best at the course - especially on the front right where the fall-off for anything not played in a first rate manner will fall quickly away.
The long par-5 18th is not a super demanding hole -- especially when the prevailing wind is from the west. Much was made of players getting home in two shots but what many don't realize is that while the hole had a much easier pin location for Sunday's final round -- the location for Saturday's 3rd round showed a completely different side. When the pin is cut towards the far left the margin for error is magnified significantly with fall-offs awaiting the mishit.
The thing about Erin Hills is that there's plenty of elasticity for average players to enjoy the course. If played from the appropriate tees the enjoyment factor can be accomplished. I have covered 30 US Opens and played all of the key courses that have served as host to the national championship of American golf. Erin Hills showed much in its debut and clear lessons were learned should a return visit happen in the not so distant future. Credit the USGA in providing for a stage in which rewards were certainly doable -- just look at what Justin Thomas did in round three versus what he did in round four.
Unfortunately, no other Midwest site is on the US Open rotation of courses through at least '26. Clearly, the facility is blessed with 600+ acres of land and the mechanics for setting up the course can be refined if and when a second US Open returns. Erin Hills is no cheap ticket to play -- greens fees are roughly $230 and that doesn't include the optional caddie.
Erin Hills was a risky proposition when the course was selected back in '10 to host the most prestigious event in America. But, all in all, the facility held up well and from a design side is a testament to the collaborative nature Dr. Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten knowing how to adroitly use what Mother Nature provided and doing so without overplaying their hand.
by M. James Ward - Winners and losers at Erin Hills - 2017 US Open
Date: June 26, 2017