For the third time in four years, the U.S. Golf Association is bringing its flagship event – the U.S. Open – to a public-access course. Erin Hills in Wisconsin has never hosted a major championship, the closest thing to which was the 2011 U.S. Amateur, won by Kelly Kraft – who is not in the field for the U.S. Open.
As you experience the U.S. Open as a golf fan, here are some things to which you might pay particular attention:
1) Getting to know you
The world’s best players are really good at becoming familiar really fast with a course they’ve never seen before. For one thing, their yardage books on the PGA Tour are incredibly detailed, so much so that the USGA is considering taking a closer look, worried that there might be too much information there.
Players won’t have such a luxury at the U.S. Open, which means players will have to depend more on their caddie’s recognizance work – and perhaps more importantly — their own instincts.
2) Bombs away
Erin Hills was built as a modern version of golf’s timeless links courses of the U.K. It was designed to be firm and fast and the USGA is doing its anti-rain dance, hoping things will stay dry enough during Open week for that wish to come true. If so, you can look for golf’s longest hitters to rare back and let it fly.
USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said that fairways at Erin Hills will be 30-50 percent wider than a typical U.S. Open. Don’t be surprised, under the right conditions, to see some drives of 400 yards – or longer.
3) Brown is the new green
At the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, the USGA altered the watering pattern so that parts of the course turned biscuit brown. It was an effort by the governing body to get golfers accustomed to the idea that golf courses didn’t have to be wall-to-wall green for them to be playable and challenging.
Not everyone agreed with the Pinehurst experiment, most notably then private citizen Donald Trump, who complained loudly. If there’s no rain, Erin Hills will probably brown out a little as the week goes on. Wonder what the President will tweet?
4) Favorite son
Steve Stricker, who was born, raised and lives in Wisconsin, was not exempt for the Open and faced 36 holes of sectional qualifying to try to get in. As is the case with Stricker, he seems to play his best with his back to the wall. At the sectional qualifier in Memphis, Tenn., he shot 67-65 to be the medalist and get one of nine available spots. Don’t be surprised if Stricker, who is the U.S. captain for the Presidents Cup this fall, finds his way onto the leaderboard at some point during the week.
5) Texas wedge
At the Pinehurst Open, Martin Kaymer – who won the championship – raised eyebrows by using his putter almost exclusively to play shots around the greens. Like Pinehurst No. 2, Erin Hills will feature closely mown areas around many of the greens. Many say that this mowing pattern invites different methods to chip, pitch or even putt. Look for many players to follow Kaymer’s example.
6) Prairie wind
The three things that bother the world’s best players most are firm greens, high rough and wind. The first two are givens at the U.S. Open. The latter is the most unpredictable. According to officials, there is no prevailing wind during the time of the U.S. Open, either in strength or direction. It will be the unknown that causes players the most anxiety.
7) Jordan rules
The winner of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in Washington, Jordan Spieth is clearly open-minded about virtually unknown courses. He is one of the best players on the PGA Tour in proximity to the hole from 150-200 yards, which will be what he faces for many approach shots at Erin Hills, which can play as much at 7,600 yards.
Don’t forget that he is one of the best putters in the game, which goes a long way in the Open. And, he made it to the quarterfinals of that U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills in 2011.
8) Spanish Armada
While Sergio Garcia, the Masters champion, is the only player who could win the Grand Slam, it’s not likely that he will be the U.S. Open champion.
Instead, look at a fellow countryman as one of the favorites. Jon Rahm, a 22-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour, already has a victory and enough high finishes that he vaulted to No. 9 in the world. He’s one of the longest drivers on Tour and could use that club to his great advantage. He’s not a bad iron player and putter, either.
9) Tube time
The U.S. Open will be back on Fox this week. The network and its personnel have another year under their belts to try to get the Open telecast right.
Fox went a long way by hiring Paul Azinger to take the analyst’s chair and Curtis Strange to walk the fairways. Azinger is the best analyst in the business, bar none. He takes you into the minds of the players, having been a major champion himself.
And Strange, a back-to- back U.S. Open winner, knows exactly what it takes to win one of these.
10) Par for the course
The USGA is almost single-minded about its championship mission to get the winning score at the U.S. Open somewhere right at even par. To prevent the best players in the world from breaking par for four rounds takes some pretty extreme measures to prepare the course.
The USGA walks a very fine line each June between a stern test and an impossible task. With no previous experience at Erin Hills, we’ll see which way it falls.