US Open: Rooting for Erin Hills

Golf is a game of a player against the course. This week we get to root for the course.

When any of us start to play golf, one of the first things we are taught about the game is that it is not a sport where you compete against your fellow players, whether you’re playing for fun or money.  Rather, your only opponent in a round of golf is the course itself.

That is exactly what makes the US Open viewing experience unique to the golf world.  The US Open, being the toughest test in golf, where the USGA sets the course up specifically to be as challenging as they can make it, gives us all an opportunity to sit back and root for the course, in this case Wisconsin’s Erin Hills.

This week, the US Open host course is intimidating, with bad weather in the forecast and a links style layout that means a lot of tall fescue in play.  Kevin Na pointed out this week that, without benefit of a spotter or a field of television cameras, it’s near-impossible to find a ball that goes into the tall grass.

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy pointed out that Erin Hills has the widest fairways in US Open history and if you’re hitting drives into the fescue this is a tournament specifically designed to make you pay for it.

This is what separates the US Open from the other majors.  The Masters is a display of one club that cannot get enough of itself, gorgeous scenery, and tradition.  The Open Championship often winds up a tale of man against the elements, with knockdown shots and long sleeves typically winning the day.  The PGA Championship is often more of a shootout, the best of the best playing at a course that brings out their full talent.  That leaves the US Open, the true test of golfer and golf course.

Erin Hills has a lot going for it to make the golf watcher want to root for the track.  First and foremost, it’s a public course, and those of us who believe firmly that the US Open belongs on public golf courses are more than happy to celebrate it.  It’s one of the youngest courses to ever host the US Open, having only been in existence for eleven years.  Second, it looks like this:

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Intimidating, no?  If I were set to play there I’d load up on golf balls first.  Just on that picture alone it looks like landscape designed to eat and bury golf balls, yet someone arrived on that property and decided to put a golf course there.

Lots of sand, and that wild fescue all over the course.  Leave the fairway at your own risk.  Only the most accurate golfer will get to the greens in regulation and put themselves in position to win the tournament.

The weather should impact the event in some big ways.  Wet conditions lead to greens that can be either slow or slippery, depending.  Factor in changes in elevation from green to green, and there will be inconsistent speeds on the dance floors of Erin Hills this week.  Putting is hard enough when the greens are consistent, let alone when conditions lead to each green having a different speed.

When I say “rooting for the course,” you might be wondering how a course would win a major tournament.  My definition of the course winning the US Open is a winning score of -1 or higher.  In 2012 and 2013, the winning score was +1.  Score wins for Olympic and Merion there.  Meanwhile, in 2011, Rory McIlroy soundly defeated Congressional, going all the way to -16 in a brilliant performance.

To me, the course is always competing at the US Open.  Between the designers and the tweaks to every course that the USGA demands, it is almost a test to see if course designers are keeping up with golfers as the members of the PGA Tour get better and better with more advanced equipment every year.

If one of the true plots is “Man versus Nature,” the team preparing US Open courses buck that trend and work together with the landscape.  I’ve had a course designer once tell me that there is a sense in the architect’s office that they are the “goalies” of golf.

Course designers are usually somewhat anonymous.  Those who were champion golfers are recognizable names, and have designed some beautiful courses.  The surnames Hurzdan and Fry, however, are not quite as well-known by the day to day hobby golfer.  While neither of them will be out in front of a camera for very long if at all this weekend, it is their work on display at Erin Hills, and their course competing against the ever-loaded field.

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

For those of us who spend a lot of our rounds in thick rough, or in other kinds of golf-related trouble, the professional ranks can be mesmerizing and at the same time frustrating to watch.  In many ways the pro game looks like the golf you and I play, but then the player swings and it stops bearing resemblance to what we know.

For most of us, birdies are rare, and rounds where we get them are pretty special.  It is that mentality that can make the US Open more fun than your average televised golf tournament.  Today, Friday, and throughout the weekend you will absolutely see pros hacking in deep grass, shaking their heads over shots, muttering to themselves on the greens, and eyeing bunkers with utter contempt.

In short:  You’ll see professionals play like the rest of us, if only for a moment at a time.  You will see Erin Hills unravel professional golfers, just take them apart at the seams, in a way you didn’t expect to ever see a pro struggle.

Most weeks on Tour, the winning score is in red double digits.  During the non-major events, players can go extremely low, and the winners look barely challenged by the courses they play on.  During the US Open, the courses fight back in a big way, bringing the field back down to Earth with a thud.

(Photo: Widowswalkgolf.com)

I happen to have no problem rooting for Erin Hills because it was designed by the same company as one of my favorite local courses here in Massachusetts:  Widow’s Walk in Scituate.  It’s a tough track, with narrow fairways, guarded greens, and three par threes where your only option is to put the ball on the putting surface.  (It’s hard to see in the above picture, but that green has multiple tiers.)  In preparation for the US Open I went and played Widow’s Walk yesterday, and the course won handily.  As it should be; it’s a tough course and I’m not a great golfer.  It would be a little bit like a world champion boxer fighting some MMA champion who has never been in a professional boxing ring.  It was a mismatch with an obvious outcome.

I bring this up because this is the first time a course designed by Hurzdan Golf has hosted a major tournament.  Being that the US Open is the major that emphasizes the true challenge of a golf course, designers are being put to the test on Fathers Day Weekend.  As one of the designers of Chambers Bay, Bruce Charlton, explained on Ground Under Repair last month this can be a nervous experience for the architect.  In my case, having been defeated by one of Hurzdan’s designs, I’ll be watching the US Open in hopes that golfers will struggle with Erin Hills the way I struggled on the South Shore on Wednesday evening.

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Tim Williams has been Sports Talk Florida's National Baseball Columnist since December of 2015. As a member of the STF team, Tim has written about Major League Baseball, the 2016 NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament, the 2016 Olympic Games, the Ryder Cup, and Florida Gators Football. Tim has been covering sports since his days at Northeastern University's WRBB student radio, where he announced baseball and football as well as contributing to the coverage of Huskies Hockey, most notably the 2005 and 2006 Beanpot Tournaments. Since, he has written about a number of sports for a number of outlets, including Sports Talk Florida and the American Sports Network. Based in Boston but a Florida native, Tim Williams has a fan's perspective that goes beyond New England. In addition to his columns, you can hear this in The Pickup Game podcast that he has hosted since the Autumn of 2016. When he isn't writing about sports, he can often be seen on golf courses around Massachusetts.