By Dave Kaplan
Erin Hills is not your traditional US Open venue. It does not have the narrow fairways of a Merion, the Teflon greens of an Oakmont, or the six-inch rough of a Bethpage Black. Rather, the Wisconsin course is its own type of monster — a gargantuan 7800-yard track that is completely exposed to the elements of America’s Midwest.
The course’s wide fairways may look inviting, but they slope drastically into gnarly and dense waist-high fescue that is guaranteed to swallow up and not return many players’ balls this week. Add to that slippery greens in the 13-14 range and a constant threat of swirling gusts and you can see why this year’s US Open is likely to be anything but a birdie fest.
The par-72 has four par 5s, all of which look tough as nails and measure out to more than 600 yards in length. The 18th hole, a 663-yard behemoth from the tips, looks particularly horrific. Players will have to avoid more than 20 bunkers and a sea of surrounding fescue on the finishing hole, which doglegs twice on its way to the green.
Also worthy of mention is the dastardly ninth hole, a short par-3 that local caddies have cleverly dubbed “the game’s shortest par 5.” The hole, which plays 26-feet downhill, is only 165 yards from the back tees and will likely only require a wedge from most of the players. However, the tee shot is usually played into swirling winds and there is serious trouble waiting for any shots that do not find the narrow putting surface. Any players who miss the green will be praying for their ball to land in one of the seven deep bunkers that guard the green because everything else on the hole is fescue.
Fortunately, those of us watching from home will have the benefit of Fox’s tech-oriented television coverage to guide us through the Robert Lang design. The network has equipped each hole at Erin Hills with tracer technology so that we will know exactly where each player’s ball is going at all times. Nine holes have been outfitted with Toptracer technology, while the other nine will use Trackman radar to monitor shots. “Two of these Trackman tee boxes will show a traditional ball trace along with data captured from the radar, while seven of the Trackman-equipped tee boxes will be used to show Emmy-nominated Fox FlightTrack, a live trace over a graphic representation of the golf hole, giving more perspective to the viewer,” the network explained in a recent press release. Additionally, there will be a reverse tracer on the 15th hole, which will show shots as they come in towards the green! Fox is also rolling out a 75-foot Strada Camera Crane that will provide even more angles to take in the action and has additionally placed 216 microphones around the course to capture the sounds of the tournament.
Obviously, distance is going to play a significant role in this year’s tournament, which seems to make Dustin Johnson an overwhelming favourite to win his second consecutive US Open. The No. 1 ranked player in the world was the runner up at Chambers Bay — a course that is similar to Erin Hills in many respects — and possesses the type of power and accuracy that is needed to navigate some of the course’s longer holes.
However, you certainly should not short-change 2015 US Open champion Jordan Spieth’s chances this weekend. Spieth actually has some familiarity with the track, having advanced to the quarter-final round at Erin Hills when the course hosted the US Amateur back in 2011. Spieth hasn’t won since February at Pebble Beach, but the Texan is still ranked first overall in strokes gained approaching the green this season and appeared to rediscover his putting stroke a few weeks ago at the Memorial. That alone makes the 23-year-old a serious threat to the rest of the field.
Personally, I am rooting for Jon Rahm. The Spaniard was the low amateur last year at Oakmont and has been electric all season long with seven Top 10s in his rookie campaign, including a win at the Farmers Insurance Open and a runner up at the Dean & DeLuca in late May. At 23, Rahm might just possess the most well-rounded game on the circuit and his numbers reflect it. The rookie is ranked third overall in strokes gained, third in strokes gained off the tee, second in strokes gained tee to green, and sixth in strokes gained approaching the green.
“I think my game is pretty suited to the US Open,” Rahm told Golf Digest in a recent interview. “It’s a really big deal to be precise off the tee, which I am. I’ve got a good short game and good feel with the putter, too. It’s one I could win!”
Of course, all three of these players will have their hands full competing against such a hard track and a field of the world’s best players. Expect Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Henrik Stenson to each have something to say about how this tournament plays out, as well as Rickie Fowler, who is still looking for his first major title.
Let the fun begin!
Dave Kaplan is a Toronto-based freelance writer and golf fanatic who is sneaky long off the tee. He’s on a crusade to inject a youthful perspective into golf media, especially the broadcast booth. Follow him on Twitter @davykap