It would be so easy for the United States Golf Association to stage its premier event this year at venerable courses like Merion, Winged Foot or the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
In a nod to “daily fee” locales, the US Open could be played every few years at Torrey Pines, Pinehurst or the crème de la crème pick, Pebble Beach.
All of those historic golf courses have hosted US Opens before, and will again. Yet when the world’s best golfers gather this week in rural Wisconsin, players and golf fans will be introduced to an 11-year-old course with zero history outside of the 2011 US Amateur. Jack didn’t play there, neither did Arnie or Seve. Even Tiger couldn’t hold it together long enough to get a look at Erin Hills.
Two years ago the USGA walked down this path at a man-made creation called Chambers Bay in suburban Seattle. Jordan Spieth nipped three-putting Dustin Johnson in a memorable finish but the tournament was more infamous than historical due to the bumpy, not-ready-for-prime-time green complexes and other hokey gimmicks.
So why does the USGA want to push its luck at Erin Hills? What the heck is wrong with Bethpage Black, the Long Island public course masterpiece that hosted two Opens to rave reviews in the 2000′s?
“I think they wanted a course in the Midwest, they like to go to daily fee places every few years and the USGA was involved in Erin Hills early on,” said Brad Faxon, the Barrington native who played in 20 Opens and will call the action from the 18th green for Fox Sports. “It will be interesting to see how it holds up.”
Faxon has spent time at Erin Hills scouting the course for Fox. To the naked eye it looks like a links course you’d see next month at the British Open. He says that’s not the case. In fact, Erin Hills is unlike any course Faxon has seen, and he’s seen just about every great layout there is in the world.
“It’s in the Kettle Moraine region where glaciers formed the land and left behind all sorts of ridges and hollows,” Faxon said. “It’s a massive piece of land, 600 acres. Rhode Island Country Club is on 130 acres. There are no trees and lots of fescue but it’s not a links course. What it is is an American classic.”
Faxon says fellow TV analyst Paul Azinger compared the course to Shinnecock Hills, the legendary club in the Hamptons. Faxon isn’t ready to go that far just yet. What he does know is that Erin Hills will be a bear for Speith, Rory McIlroy and defending champ Dustin Johnson.
Course designers Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten chose to use much of the 600 acres. The course could play as long as 7,600 yards, which borders on the ridiculous. There are four par-5′s, all of which can be stretched to over 600 yards (the 18th hole is 663). Three par-4′s top 500 yards. Players won’t know what to do when they get to the 165-yard ninth hole.
“It’s an incredible advantage for the longest hitters,” Faxon said. “There are some blind tee shots but with no trees to make you drive in a particular direction, you can really do some damage with an accurate driver.”
Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, is an Erin Hills fan. He walked the property in 2005 during the construction stage and fell in love. Now he’ll get to show off his find to the world.
The same line of thinking gave us Chambers Bay, which ended with an 18th hole that eventual champ Spieth dubbed “the dumbest hole I’ve ever played.” Erin Hills is a significantly better course but players won’t like the knee-deep fescue, the tricky prairie winds or the 8-plus mile walk around the massive layout.
That’s actually the good part about the US Open. You have to love it when these guys squeal a bit as they make double bogeys and go looking for their Titleists in knee-deep grass. It’s refreshing.
But so is a US Open at Oakmont, Congressional or The Country Club in Brookline. Why mess with history?
— You can reach Kevin McNamara on Twitter @KevinMcNamara33.