Players preparing to face a relatively untested challenge in the 2017 U.S. Open
By Art Stricklin
The world’s best golfers are set to take on a new and untested challenge at the 2017 U.S. Open, later this week.
“I know nothing about Erin Hills, absolutely nothing,” says Spanish rookie sensation Jon Rahm, whose length off the tee could be a decided advantage. “All I know is that it’s in the middle of nowhere.”
While not actually the middle of nowhere, just 35 miles west of Milwaukee, the course remains a mystery for many professionals who have yet to venture to the southern Wisconsin destination.
Twelve-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker, a Wisconsin native, however, is very familiar with the rustic decade-old layout.
“I think it will be a great U.S. Open (site) for this year and for years to come,” says Stricker, who was the first tour professional to play the course when it opened in 2006 and has been the go-to player for anybody who wants to know what awaits in mid-June. “It will certainly play as a links (course) and the wind could blow, because it’s only 35 miles from the Lake Michigan and I think it will play firm and fast.”
U.S. Open preparation takes many different forms. For some, it means rounding their games into shape early on in order to make it through Section Qualifiers. For others, like 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, it requires a more modest approach based on conservation.
“One thing I’ve learned from that I try to put into practice each year is you can’t over-prepare for the U.S. Open and you can’t over practice,” says Simpson. “It’s going to be a long, hard, tiring week so you have to save up your strength. You know it will be firm and fast, especially at Erin Hills. You just have to be ready.”
While there has not been a professional tournament staged at Erin Hills, the course did host the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship, and several players who competed in that event will be in the field for the 2017 Open – including the 2011 champion Kelly Kraft.
“One of the things that is so unique about Erin Hills is they can move the tee marker 100 yards in any direction and still play the same hole,” Kraft says. “That’s how much room they have on their course. I can’t think of another U.S. Open course you can do that with. There is not a lot of wind break there, just some silos and a chapel, but the wind could blow a lot when we are there.”
While Kraft, who defeated fellow tour professional Patrick Cantlay in the U.S. Amateur finals, is not considered one of the longest hitters on the tour, averaging 290 yards off the tee, he said players must adjust to the Erin Hills conditions.
“I remember when I won the amateur there some of my drives bounced 100 yards in the fairways, which is just crazy stuff. You have to prepare yourself to hit shots you would never hit anywhere else. I hit a couple of 5- and 6-irons that bounced, ran and ended up 250 yards away,” recalls Kraft. “That’s something you won’t see elsewhere outside of the British Open.”
Unique conditions in the U.S. Open often require competitors to change up the clubs in their bag in order to have the best chance to compete.
“I want to get my feet on the ground there and see if I need to change up clubs for the week. It’s hard to tell unless you have been there before, which I haven’t (been to Erin Hills),” says Matt Kuchar. “At Merion (in 2013) I waited too long to change up clubs and it cost me. I should have done it sooner. I just have to see it person and be ready to change if needed.”
Adds 2017 Masters Champion Sergio Garcia: “I don’t like to change up the clubs in my bag for a certain tournament like the Open, but I have done it sometimes in the past. You have to keep it low and keep it along the ground to have some success.”
Another Masters Champion, Jordan Spieth, said he’s eager to return to Erin Hills where he advanced deep into match play at the 2011 Amateur.
“I think my confidence is near the top now and I have as much confidence about Erin Hills as anybody who played it except for maybe Kelly or Patrick.
“Michael (Greller) and I still have some work to do when we get there, but we still have the yardage books. Michael caddied for Justin Thomas there and I walked it for several days, but it will be good to be back.”
Garica has never seen Erin Hills, but with his length and short games skills is eager to get his first look. “I’ve heard a lot of things about the course, some good, some not so much. It should be a big bouncing course with lots of roll,” says Garcia. “I know when I get to the U.S. Open I’ve got to take my patience pills and be ready for some long days. That’s what I think Erin Hills is.”
“It’s what I would call the new age U.S. Open,” adds Harris English, who also played in the 2011 U.S. Amateur. “I would much prefer the classic courses, but this one will be different for sure. I don’t know if it suits anybody’s game. I just hope the USGA doesn’t go real crazy on it, but I’m interested to see what happens.”
While the USGA may change the length of the course and various holes as they have done in the past, at 7,800 yards – the maximum length of the Erin Hills layout – it would be the longest course in U.S. Open history.
But with the majority of players on the PGA Tour averaging more than 300 yards off the tee box, the big hitters, including defending champion Dustin Johnson, should have an advantage in attacking the course.
“I’d have to say I’d really be surprised if a big hitter like Dustin Johnson didn’t win this year. You have to go with length there,” Stricker says.
But for Kraft, who’s had more success at Erin Hills than anyone, he’s eager to return. “You had a lot of good players that played in the Amateur, but for one week I beat them all.” All he’s asking is for the chance to do it one more time.