News & Opinion

Erin Hills earns shot at another U.S. Open

ERIN, Wis. – The 117th United States Open came off exactly the way the U.S. Golf Association needed and wanted it to be: incident-free.

There were no controversial penalties, dubious rulings or clown’s-mouth-windmill-like course-setup blunders. 

By Sunday night, only two questions still needed to be asked.

1. Was Erin Hills too easy to be a real U.S. Open course?

2. Should Erin Hills get another Open, or will it be like a Kentucky basketball player: one and done?

Let’s dispatch the first question. There was significant rainfall on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

When rain falls, low scores follow.

“If there’s no wind and soft greens, we’re going to play well,” said Justin Thomas, who posted a third-round 9-under 63. “That’s just how it is, especially with fairways this big. I don’t understand the beef for low scores. Twelve under was leading. That’s not that low for the best players in the world.”

Were you expecting the 63-shooter to hate low scores? Of course not. One old-school former major champion who was on the premises told me during a casual chat how disgusted he was that the U.S. Open turned into a Greater Milwaukee Open, with easy scoring. Part of that feeling, though, also involved his disgust with how much easier the game is now and how much farther players hit the ball, making some courses irrelevant. I feel his generational pain but … let it go.

“There are complaints any time you see U.S. Open venues work back towards even par,” said former U.S. Open champ Jordan Spieth. “Now they make it tough and fair, and we’re 12 under, and people are complaining. So, pick one side or the other. I think this was exciting. You saw some awesome golf. You can’t ask for much more.”

Yes, scoring was extraordinary. Winner Brooks Koepka shot 16 under, tying Rory McIlroy’s mark for lowest Open total under par. This was the first time anyone other than the champion finished in double digits under par, and Erin Hills had six other players – including someone named Xander Schauffele (he’s a stick, just an unknown one) – accomplished that. And Erin Hills produced 140 sub-par rounds, smashing the mark of 122 set at Medinah in 1990. By U.S. Open standards, the old pro was right: this was a virtual GMO.

Here’s a more relevant stat: Koepka and Dustin Johnson, last year’s champion, led their respective fields in greens hit in regulation and had average driving distances of 322 and 317, respectively, which was 20 yards longer than the three U.S. Open champions before them.

This is how the game is played in 2017. The USGA has declined to rein in the golf ball and foolishly swears nobody’s hitting it longer, yet we’re nonetheless approaching Happy Gilmore-level driving distances. Erin Hills was more than 7,700 yards, and these guys ate it up. See the 18th hole, at 670-some yards, and Rickie Fowler getting home with 3-wood and long iron. Only Sunday, when the wind made it a challenge, did Erin Hills provide the survival-test Open we’re used to seeing. It’s time for the 8,000-yard course.

“I thought the USGA did a phenomenal job of allowing the course to play the way it’s supposed to play,” said Spieth, who tied for 35th. “They created an environment where you can score if you play well, and if you don’t, it can go the other way. There was no unfairness whatsoever. I thought it was really well done.”

There were dissenting opinions, of course. Most involved the par-3 ninth green (it’s too severe, and it’s not the signature hole, just a bad hole); too many uphill approaches and semi-blind shots; and the fairways were too wide. Some of those are fixable.

Should Erin Hills get another Open? The course looked great on TV, parking and traffic were near best-ever levels, and there is room for even more money-making luxury suites onsite. It felt like a slam dunk. 

The next available Open date is 2027. The USGA should write in Erin Hills now. In ink.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle

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