2017 US Open
The winners and losers at Erin Hills
by M. James Ward
The 117th US Open marked a first for both Erin Hills, the host site, and the State of Wisconsin. The week produced a range of interesting storylines that showed top tier shotmaking and unexpected hiccups at crucial moments. For the United States Golf Association (USGA) the return to the Midwest for the first time since '03 showed how crucial it is to make sure the championship of American golf is staged at other locations beyond being the domain of the east and west coasts.
Here are the winners and losers of last week's event in the Badger State.
The world's top three players. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day all failed to make the 36-hole cut. This marked the first time since the world rankings was created in 1986 that all three of the top ranked players headed home earlier than expected. Johnson waited till Tuesday of tournament week to arrive given the birth of his second son the day prior. The missed cut at the US Open marked his second straight missed cut for the world's number one ranked player. McIlroy's indifferent play came from a layoff for several weeks to rehabilitate a tender back. For Day his play was far from being on form with wayward driving and a balky putter. The Aussie needs to revive himself at The Open Championship in a few weeks.
Rickie Fowler. Seized the moment with a seven-under-par 65, matching the US Open record of most under par in an opening round. However, the 28-year-old 9th ranked world player was unable to keep pace. Entering the final round just two shots off the lead Fowler had to spend more time playing inventive recovery shots as his earlier steady driving became more circumspect. In the end, Rickie was only able to match par-72 and was simply passed by other players able to demonstrate an extra gear for which Fowler has yet to demonstrate in a major championship's final round.
Justin Thomas. Ascended the leaderboard with his stellar 3rd round 63 -- besting the previously mark of 8-under-par for a US Open round set by 1973 US Open champion Johnny Miller during his win at Oakmont. Thomas closed out his Saturday play with a spectacular 3-metal second shot to the closing par-5 and making the short eagle putt. Unfortunately, the three-time PGA Tour winner for '16-'17 was as flat as a pancake in the key final round and faded badly with a closing 75. Like Fowler, Thomas has the talent -- the issue is can he see it through for the full 72-holes in a major championship.
Speaking of Johnny Miller. The two-time major champion and lead analyst for NBC-Sports weighed in by downplaying the achievement given Miller's viewpoint that Erin Hills was not in the same category of challenge that Oakmont is where Miller set the then record. The bottom line is that Miller's round is till the gold standard for overall shotmaking prowess given the rigors of Oakmont. What was classless of Miller was failing to show good cheer for what Thomas achieved. Miller's take was more of the curmudgeon who can't see beyond his own two feet.
FOX’s coverage certainly improved from its first US Open in '15 at Chambers Bay but lead announcer Joe Buck despite his clear desire to do his best is out of his element when reporting on golf versus his other efforts with Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Hats off to FOX for kayoing original analyst Greg Norman after his first year. Paul Azinger brings a refreshing vigor and is not afraid to be straightforward when situations call for total candor. Course announcer Ken Brown was also quite good. FOX did bring a better technical side with shot-tracer and other additions but the network still needs to raise its approach to be equal to the event it is covering. Having foot solders alongside the players can really add a good deal. Finally, the awards presentation with Curtis Strange interviewing Koepka was amateurish. The USGA needs to follow the script of the R&A to provide for a fitting ending.
Brooks Koepka. The new US Open champion, showed immediately in the final round he was ready to play with two straight birdies at the 1st and 2nd holes. His ball striking was peerless given the blustery wind conditions. The 27-year-old missed just one green during the final round and a total of ten for the entire week. His final round five-under-par 67 was aided by solid putts when called upon. Koepka was in the heat of battle and he showed veteran composure and tour de force shotmaking when called upon. The Floridian made two crucial par putts at the 12th and 13th -- the latter coming from 10-feet. At the next three holes Koepka sealed his first major championship with birdies at each hole. Koepka showed much during last year's Ryder Cup Matches -- his wherewithal to win on the biggest of stages was in clear view at Erin Hills. The now 10th ranked player in the world is one of golf's emerging young stars with future majors beckoning.
The USGA. After last year's rules debacle that nearly derailed that event the governing body of golf in America needed to resurrect its position as the lead force in administering America's national championship. Going to America's heartland with its marquee event was a roll of the dice that turned out very well. Erin Hills was prepared correctly and the USGA was sensible in carefully calculating the delicate dance between making the course tough but fair. Erin Hills provided a good bit of high quality golf and not the awfully dull and tedious slog type that so many past US Open have produced. The USGA was also blessed by Mother Nature in providing for dry but testing windy conditions for the concluding round.
Hideki Matsuyama. Japan's most gifted golfer clearly made a strong move with a six-under-par 66 in the final round. In US Opens posting a score while other players are left with several holes to play can sometimes result in winning the event as the pressure mounts on the finishers. Matsuyama played well to close out '16 and had a fine start in '17 before tailing off in recent outings. There's little question that his golf game has all the ingredients to make him Japan's first ever major golf champion in the very near future.
Wisconsin's golf ascension. Going to a new venue and host State was a risky move but by the Open's conclusion it became clear the Badger State has clearly asserted its stature. Erin Hills did a fine job in hosting the US Open. Hats off to course ownership in closing the public course to all play at the end of '16 to ensure top tier playing conditions. With nearby Whistling Straits having hosted three PGA Championships -- the last coming '15 and with the Ryder Cup Matches to be played there in '20 it's clear Wisconsin is smiling "cheese" to all the cameras. With the opening of Sand Valley Golf Club in Nekoosa it's clear Wisconsin is looking to being at the forefront in golf for the foreseeable future.
Steve Stricker. The Wisconsin native brought justifiable pride to the home crowd as their favorite son played well with a tie for 16th. Initially, Stricker had asked the USGA to provide him with an exemption into the event. That request was turned down and Stricker's only path to the Championship was through an arduous 36-hole qualified where he succeeded. The affable and self-effacing Stricker has always played golf in manner bespeaking of the sport's most noble traditions. His presence and quality play was a real bonus on all counts. His next mission will be in Captaining the USA squad in September during the President's Cup Matches.