DID ERIN HILLS DELIVER AS A MAJOR VENUE?
It was the longest course in US Open history... but failed to test the best. So where now?
It was never going to be your typical US Open. Consider the following. At nearly 8,000 yards in length, Erin Hills was the longest course ever to host America’s national championship. For the first time since 1992 at Pebble Beach, a level-par round would add up to 72, not 70. For the first time ever, the championship was being held in the state of Wisconsin. And the course set-up? Some fairways would be 60 yards wide, bordered (eventually) by perhaps the only survivor from a more traditional US Open course presentation: penal rough intended to reduce even the most gifted performer to the level of mere hacker.
Predictably, the density of the fescue grass off the fairways provoked outrage in certain quarters. American Kevin Na’s rant on social media was first. Then Lee Westwood, accompanied by ‘crawling through the undergrowth caddie’ Billy Foster, made his point more subtly and humorously. And PGA Tour player Wesley Bryan illustrated how easy it was to lose a ball only feet off the fairway.
On the other hand, when the USGA succumbed and ‘harvested’ much of the rough in the lead-up to the championship, Rory McIlroy was quick to take offence. “If you can’t hit a 60-yard wide target off the tee you really shouldn’t be here,” was the gist of the world number two’s argument.
Inevitably though, the main focus as far as the course was concerned fell on the unprecedented yardage, a number that, inadvertently or not, revealed some of modern-day professional golf’s home truths. Able to use their drivers with something close to impunity, the players produced some extraordinary numbers. At the halfway mark, for example, as many as 116 members of the field were averaging over 300 yards from the tee.
Anecdotal evidence abounded of how far the modern ball can travel when struck by massive driver heads. The forced carry from tee to 1st fairway was 278 yards – no problem. Defending champion Dustin Johnson was through the green in two shots on the 676-yard 18th hole. And the new champion, Brooks Koepka, struck a 379yard 3-wood off the same tee en route to victory. Clearly, distance alone is not something that scares or intimidates the 21st century professional.
Then again, many fingers pointed to the winning score of 16 under par, tying the record-low for the championship. While much of that can be put down to the raising of the par – reducing just a couple of the par 5s to 4s would have left Koepka only eight-under for the week – it is clear that Erin Hills has left the USGA with a choice to make in future. Do they return to the tried-and-tested format of narrow fairways, thick rough and firm, fast greens? Or are we on the edge of an era that will soon see US Open courses stretched beyond 8,000 yards in an attempt to bring the driver back into play and retain the width that was such a feature at Erin Hills?
THE TAKEAWAY: The fact that pretty much every player in the field lauded the design should tell you that Erin Hills deserves another shot at hosting a US Open, but it will need narrower fairways, thinner fescue, a little less rain and more wind to make it a proper challenge for the world’s best.
‘ARE WE ON THE EDGE OF AN ERA OF US OPEN COURSES BEYOND 8,000 YARDS?’
Erin Hills’ historic length did not unduly test the world’s finest players.