News & Opinion

Spieth, Rahm should find common ground at Erin Hills

Erin Hills makes its major-championship debut next week when it becomes the third public-access course in four years to host the U.S. Open. If you wish, you can scare up a host of players who would be considered legitimate favorites.

Here, we will take a closer look at two players – one a usual suspect and the other, who is not – for whom relatively untested Erin Hills could be ideal, for totally different reasons.

Jordan Spieth, winner of the 2015 U.S. Open at the maiden major at Chambers Bay, and PGA Tour rookie Jon Rahm are perfectly suited to play well at Erin Hills, although each has different tools to tackle the test.

USGA executive director Mike Davis said that fairways at Erin Hills will be 30-50 percent wider than a “normal” U.S. Open because of the possibility of wind across the southeast Wisconsin plains. That will be good news for Spieth, who ranks 130th in driving accuracy on Tour, hitting just 58.4 percent of his fairways from the tee.

If Spieth has an opportunity to play from the fairway or the first cut of rough, he starts to play to his strengths. Hitting approach shots from 150-175 yards, Spieth ranks second on Tour in proximity to the hole. From 175-200, he’s sixth, and from 125-150 yards, he’s 18th. That should cover most approach-shot distances in a U.S. Open.

Erin Hills is billed as a modern American links, and its greens complexes are guarded by gaping bunkers and closely-mown runoffs. Spieth’s short game is considered very good, but the statistics don’t bear that out. The numbers indicate that he’s merely average. He gets it up and down 68 percent of the time at 10-20 yards (65th on Tour) and 53 percent from 20-30 yards (111th).

As we all know, Spieth really shines on the greens, although this season has been below his high standards. He’s second on Tour in putts per green in regulation (1.70). But he’s only 36th in putts per round (28.55). And from 7, 8, 9 and 10 feet – of which you have quite a few in a U.S. Open – he hovers at little more than 50 percent.

But keep this in mind: Spieth advanced to the quarterfinals at the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills. And Spieth’s caddie, Michael Greller, caddied for Justin Thomas, who lost in the round of 32. Kelly Kraft beat Patrick Cantlay in the final. Neither finalist qualified for the Open.

“We still need to get there and redo all of our homework,” Spieth said. “Just having played there, I mean, it was a while ago, so I don't know if that helps a lot. I know we obviously played it pretty well, so yeah, a lot of confidence going forward.”

Rahm has spent this PGA Tour season playing courses for the first time, so Erin Hills won’t pose a problem that he hasn’t already faced. Rahm, No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking, has parlayed that lack of experience into a victory in his rookie year, plus two runners-up and three other top-five finishes.

Where Erin Hills plays into Rahm’s hands is off the tee. He’s third on Tour in strokes gained off the tee (.987) and 12th in driving distance (305.1 yards). He calls his driver “a weapon.” If Erin Hills plays firm and fast, as USGA officials intend, Rahm can take care of the wider fairways and bludgeon the course into submission.

Although Rahm ranks 63rd on Tour in putts per round (28.75), he generally can expect more lengthy par putts in a U.S. Open than makeable birdie putts. Besides, he’s second on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green and third in total strokes gained.

And before you say that Rahm is too young and it’s too soon, remember that when Spieth hoisted the trophy at Chambers Bay for his second major, he was six weeks away from turning 22.

“Like I keep saying, 22-year-old, first year on Tour, I'm not supposed to have this many (opportunities) to win,” Rahm said. “Hopefully I can get another one before the year is over.”

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter@mikepurkeygolf