June 12, 2017
U.S. Mystery Open
Erin Hills, this week's U.S. Open course is a mystery. Jordan Spieth played in the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship at Erin Hills and remembers that it starts with a par five and ends with a long par five. Other than that he remembers it had no trees, but nothing else remarkable. The golf course is eleven years old and is located 40 miles west of Milwaukee in the farmlands of Wisconsin. It is not the typical U.S. Open venue that usually features tree lined fairways, classic architectural design, and a storied history. There are similarities to Chambers Bay, the course that hosted the 2015 Open. With Chambers Bay, the USGA forced a championship on a new course that wasn't physically ready for that kind of attention and scrutiny. The result was a disaster and a black eye for the USGA. Similarly the USGA is going to a new course that has promise, but no real history. Fortunately Erin Hills is agronomically mature and will present a fair test for the best players in the world. Time will tell us if it was a worthy test for a national championship.
The U.S. Open has always been my favorite major championship. It demands straight driving, accurate iron shots, imaginative short game, and steely nerve putting on super-fast greens. In the past a round in par was a great score. With today's players' skills, shooting par is expected. The USGA has tried to keep the winning score close to par for the 72 hole total. Unfortunately, recently, they have had to trick the courses up with firm hard greens, unfair pin positions, and extremely fast greens. Because they had to be right on the borderline between difficult and unfair, unforeseen conditions would occasionally tip the scales to unplayable. I like that the U.S. Open is the toughest test in golf, but an expertly hit shot should not be subject to luck. The USGA states that they want to identify the best players. If that is the case, it should not be a survival contest. The USGA has had its share of controversy in recent years with rules controversies and course conditions. I would expect they will do everything in their power to have a fair, but challenging event that will be free of controversy. I have always had the utmost respect for the USGA and their role in keeping the tradition and integrity of the game, but they have handled recent events in a very amateurish manner. I expect no major controversies this week.
Erin Hills will be the longest U.S. Open course on record, if they choose to play it at its' full length. Usually the fairways are very narrow, but the Erin Hills driving areas are generous by U.S. Open standards. However, if you miss the fairway you will be subject to deep unforgiving rough. The 138 bunkers on the course are unusual in that you will rarely get a level lie in the sand. Regular bunkers on the PGA Tour are relatively easy for professionals, but with the undulations and tricky stances that will be common, the bunkers will become a true hazard and penalty if hit into. The officials have stated that the greens are in excellent condition and will be cut to a fast but not too fast speed. The course setup sounds very fair and if the course lives up to its hype, we should have an exciting championship.
Because the course is a mystery and because we have no track record of play on this course, picking a winner is also a mystery. No one player stands out with his recent accomplishments. Rory McIlroy has not played competitively in recent weeks and is nursing a bad back. Jason Day is seemingly in some sort of funk and doesn't seem to have the drive this year. Rick Fowler is back being really good, but not good enough. The second tier of great players like Brooks Koepka, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, or Justin Rose haven't shown the mental fortitude of late to win this major. Two players have the game and courage to win, Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson. Each has question marks, but each have what it takes to succeed. Rahm is a rookie, but he has shown no hesitation to hit the big shots and be in the mix almost every tournament that he enters. He has a major championship in his future. This might be too soon, but he is trending in the right direction. With Dustin Johnson, we might be talking about two major championships in a row, except for him slipping and hurting his back before the Masters. He drives it long and straight. The greens will not be overly difficult so he should make enough putts to triumph. He could steamroll this course and make it look easy. My pick to win this year is Jordan Spieth. He is a major championship type of player. His game rises to the occasion. With good greens, he could get on a putting roll and a putt his way to another title.
The U.S. Open always has the unexpected. Surprise winners are not uncommon, which could easily happen this week. With a new golf course with all players trying to figure out the best way to navigate the layout, add the prestige and pressure of a major championship and we should have all we need for a great week of golf.