News & Opinion

USGA must avoid an over-the-top Erin Hills

ERIN, Wis. – What is the opposite of a hot streak? That’s what the U.S. Golf Association is on right now. 

Consider the poor putting surfaces at Chambers Bay two years ago, the Dustin Johnson penalty fiasco at Oakmont last year that resulted in a major rules change and the Anna Nordqvist sand-granule-penalty fiasco during a playoff at the U.S. Women’s Open last year, which also resulted in a major rules change.

Now we’re at Erin Hills, a first-time major championship host, for the U.S. Open and the USGA had grounds-crew workers hacking down fescue on several holesTuesday afternoon. In your life, have you ever heard of the USGA making a course easier on a Tuesday?

It’s this simple: The USGA can’t afford another U.S. Open gaffe this summer. Confidence in golf’s governing bodies never has been at such a low ebb, especially in the wake of the Lexi Thompson viewer call-in penalty on the LPGA tour in March.

Golf needs this Open to be a showcase for the game, and the jury is still out on Erin Hills. It’s a long track and will play at about 7,700 yards. One thing that could go wrong is the tee placement. Milwaukee, not Chicago, is the true Windy City of the Midwest. 

“They have to get it right,” Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger said. “They have a lot of tee-box options, and they’re nervous about having something bad happen if the wind comes up. The 10th fairway is arguably the biggest in U.S. Open history, but into the wind, it could turn into the hardest par 4 in Open history if they choose the wrong tee box. They don’t need players not being able to reach the fairway.”

The par-3 ninth hole is another possible controversy. It’s a mere 135 yards from an elevated green to an inverted bowl of a green surrounded by a moat of severe bunkers. Few players in the 2008 U.S. Women’s Public Links Championship at Erin Hills hit the green in regulation during qualifying rounds.

“The ninth hole is going to play so deceptively difficult,” said Darren Clarke, the previous European Ryder Cup captain who is working for Fox Sports this week. “There’s a swale in the middle of the right-hand side, and if you pitch a ball at the top of that, it’s going 30 yards down the slope. You can say that’s wrong or that’s right, but it’s right on the cusp. It’s a brilliant little hole.”

Clarke compared the ninth’s dangers to Royal Troon’s infamous par-3 eighth hole, known as the Postage Stamp. 

“Somebody’s going to be unfortunate and hit what they think is a good shot and make double bogey or triple or whatever,” he said. “It’s going to happen. It’s definitely going to happen. If you miss that green, you may end up in the back of a little bunker and not even have a backswing.”

Former Tour player Brad Faxon, another Fox Sports analyst, said he saw shots in practice rounds land on the crest and race 25 yards off the green. “Could that hole go terribly wrong?” he asked. “I watched Dru Love (Davis Love’s son) play pingpong back and forth across both sides of the green in a practice round today. They’re mowing the fringe higher at the ninth, but the length of the grass isn’t going to save them. It’s the slope.”

Azinger said this Open is an attempt at USGA rebranding.

“It was said the U.S. Open was the toughest test in golf,” Azinger said. “Now they want it to be the ultimate test of golf. So, it’s less of an ‘us-against-the-players’ mindset. It’s good, as long as they don’t go overboard and try to make everybody happy. The toughest week of the season is the U.S. Open, 90 percent of the time. They don’t want trickery and skulduggery; they just want a firm, fair test. I think [USGA executive director] Mike Davis has got it right.”

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