Does Erin Hills Deserve Another US Open?

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open?
A view of the fifth green on Championship Sunday at the US Open.

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open?

I will deflect that question for a moment with another: What does the USGA have against the Midwest?

Here’s how the next ten years of US Opens are scheduled: East Coast, West Coast, East Coast, West Coast, East Coast, West Coast, East Coast, sorta East Coast, East Coast. Prior to the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, the last time a non-coastal course hosted the US Open was 2001 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Whether Oakmont is East Coast or not is an open question for me. Pittsburgh absolutely is not Midwest, however.)

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open? The Midwest certainly does. I personally would like to see the US Open come to Oakland Hills. But if Erin Hills gets another shot, I’m fine with that. If neither Oakland Hills nor Erin Hills are in the cards, what about Medinah (I have played #3 and very much like it) or Olympia Fields (anyone want to invite me to play there)? I’ve never been to the Dye Course at French Lick, but it has a reputation of being a bear.  Indiana has never hosted a US Open but French Lick has successfully hosted a Senior PGA.

But here’s my best idea: Take the US Open to Jack’s place at Muirfield Village. The Golden Bear would be 87, and hopefully still with us. What a nice gesture that would be for the Greatest of All Time.

As far as Erin Hills is concerned, it did what the US Open is supposed to do: identify the best player. I don’t think that anyone can argue that Brooks Koepka was not the best player that week. Yes, the scores were low, but the course was not necessarily easy. Eight of the top twelve players did not play on the weekend. On Sunday, with the wind at its usual, more than a few were racing down the leaderboard rather than up.

It is not your typical U.S. Open setup, but I’m a big fan. – Rory McIlroy

If not for nightly rains and unusually still days, scores would have been much more in line with traditional US Open scores. Recall that the last time a score went as low as -16, it was Rory destroying a rain-softened Congressional. No one is suggesting that Congressional is not a worthy course based on  those circumstances.

It would be a lot of fun to see this place firm and fast. It might just be a little bit more of a mental headache if we do get to see that. – Rickie Fowle.

There’s also this: Erin Hills was a par 72. Oakmont, which is often praised as the toughest test around, was set up as a par 70 in 2016. That’s an eight shot difference over four rounds. Dustin Johnson finished -4 at Oakmont, but his total four round score was 276. Koepka’s score on a course that was set up eight shots longer over four rounds was 272. Not that far off from toughest course in the USGA rota. Martin Kaymer was -9 at Pinehurst, which also was a par 70.The average score of the three previous winners was 274.

In identifying the best player, Erin Hills managed to do so without contributing to any embarrassing situations. The were no strange rules violations caused by the course design. Unlike Chambers Bay, Erin Hills looked perfect, thanks to the willingness of management to shut down for months prior to the Championship. Some players complained about the rough, but that seemed almost pro forma; fairways were twice as wide as the usual US Open course to begin with. The size and brawniness of Erin Hills made controversial, tricky setups unnecessary.

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open? It does if you like straightforward golf that lets players play.

A spectator’s view of the seventeenth on Saturday.

I wondered why, after low scores on the first and second days, and facing similar conditions on the third, the USGA didn’t push the course’s length back to 8,000+ yards. Erin Hills could handle that. The course has some back tees that I think start somewhere in Iowa.

There’s also the question of why the USGA cut back the rough knowing that rainy nights and windless days were in the forecast. On the round I played at Erin Hills the day after the championship, I wondered aloud to my caddie (a long time employee at Erin Hills) why the USGA didn’t leave the tall fescue in place and then cut it back when wind came back into the forecast. His answer was that in the day or so after cutting the fescue back, it turns brown close to the ground, which it was feared would not look good on television.

If the US Open returns to Erin Hills, I am certain that the USGA will have soft weather contingency plans.

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open? As a fan, I think so. I enjoyed the show.

Traditionalists who compare the US Open at Erin Hills to a mid-level PGA TOUR event need to loosen their ties and take off their coats. I’d rather see the leader making birdies than limping in at +4. Pyrrhic victories are not a lot of fun to watch.

One negative from a spectator’s point of view was an inability to get close to the action. Broad fairways and a wide swath of long fescue rough kept spectators much further from the action than I recall as a spectator at the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, or at the Crowne Plaza Colonial Invitational (Colonial hosted the 1941 US Open). On the other hand, spectators did not need periscopes to see anything.  Erin Hills’ terrain meant that there were nearly always elevated positions to see the action — albeit often from a couple of hundred yards away. Still, I had no problem following the action. I had a big zoom lens with me, but if not, I would have brought binoculars.

Another negative was that the course is a beast to walk. Eschewing the traditional golf reporter’s spot in the air conditioned media tent, I instead walked the course starting in the morning, returning to the media tent for lunch, then heading back out again. I logged fourteen miles a day, over hilly terrain (the hills were no surprise to me. I had played Erin Hills the summer before.)

A crowd at the third awaits the final group.

The USGA could somewhat improve the situation by putting up additional grandstands. If you look at the photo of the third hole (above), there’s plenty of room for grandstands on the left, which would have the effect of bringing people closer to the action, at least around the greens.

The infrastructure and facilities at Erin Hills seemed to work well.  I thought that Erin Hills easily handled the foot traffic. Supposedly around 30,000 tickets were sold each day. Erin Hills could have handled twice that. I am not sure about how well the remote parking and bus transportation system worked for spectators. It worked well enough for media transportation, though.

Does Erin Hills deserve another US Open?

My answer is yes. The USGA needs to work harder to make the National Championship a National Championship, not a bi-coastal one. Erin Hills (along with other great Midwestern courses) can be part of that equation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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