ERIN, Wis. — The players ease into a U.S. Open. Brian Harman was on the Erin Hills range alone the other day, in the middle of the field, hitting balls dead into the strong northerly Wisconsin wind. Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler were earlier arrivals, in for a brief reconnaissance trip after the Memorial. Gene Sauers, the defending U.S. Senior Open champion, was checking out the 504-yard 10th, wondering if there was a way for him to reach the par-4 in two. (Only with a change in wind direction, he concluded.) Jim Furyk stood on the 18th tee, about 650 yards, downhill and then uphill, from where he was putting his peg.
"I've played some good 600-yard par-5s," he said. "I've never played a great one." This one looks great. Whether or not it will play great, time will tell. For many players, it will be plain stuff: driver, hybrid, wedge, a putt or two or three. But for a Dustin Johnson, a Jon Rahm, a Rory McIlroy, a Jason Day, the hole can be reached in two. That doesn't mean they should try. There's a crazy swale to the left of the green leaving the most awkward sort of pitch or chip up the hill.
The course will reward length, for sure, and it will encourage players to hit a lot of drivers. "All courses reward length," Harman said. "But this one especially." That's because the fairways are wide—40 yards often and sometimes much more than that. They don't pinch in at the 300-yard mark. They don't particularly bend. You can hit driver, take a whack and breathe. But wind will be the main obstacle. And fitness. "It's a tough walk," Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open winner and Fox golf reporter said. He's walked it. "But it's nothing they can't handle." The players amend that thought slightly. It's nothing the fittest among them can't handle. That list includes many of the leading players, but not all of them. Still, you won't see many playing more than nine practice holes per day.
Mark Loomis, the producer of the Fox telecast, said the ball-in-the-air will be one of the pleasures of the telecast. Downwind, from the elevated tees? There will be Dustin Johnson drives that are in the air for five seconds or more. There will be Zach Johnson drives that are in the air for five seconds or more. And there will be ball searches in the long fescue rough that will go right to the five-minute limit. Enjoy the time while you can, fellas. When the new rulebook comes out in 2019, that limit will most likely be three.
Billy Horschel, stomping around in the rough a few days ago merrily in search of a practice-round ball that did not matter, found it before his caddie did and announced proudly, "You need an eagle-eye around here." Horschel, not afraid to be candid, was outspoken in his criticism of Chambers Bay, another newish public course, where the U.S. Open was played just two years ago. He seems to like Erin Hills, and he's certainly long enough and fit enough to handle it.
He was playing with Dustin Johnson. "This is nothing like Chambers Bay," Johnson said, even though both courses are public and basically treeless. "You can't compare them. This is a good course." Johnson, who famously won last year's Open at the private Oakmont Country Club, even with the one-shot penalty he received after the final round was over, praised the USGA for bringing the national championship to another public course. That is, a public course with a $280 green fee.
It so happens that the Chambers Bay and Oakmont championships were the first two that aired under the Fox Sports banner. The Fox telecast is more show and less tell than its NBC forebear. "We have microphones under each cup, actually part of the cup with a little battery pack attached to it," Loomis says. When the player moans to his caddie about a missed short one, the hole mic will pick it up. Also this year, an anemometer will be pretty much a fixture on your screen, as wind strength and direction will most likely impact every airborne shot. "This is a wind story," Loomis says.
Of course, these days opining about the wind is part of the mix too. Loomis has come to realize that the U.S. Open story he wants to tell is shaped by what fans, caddies, Dan Jenkins and players are saying about the U.S. Open, in real time, through smartphone magic. Last year, in Father's Day tweets, the players had all sorts of commentary about the Johnson rules flap.
For nearly a year now, people have been saying to Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, some variation on this theme: "You must be eager to get Chambers Bay and Oakmont in your rearview mirror."
Davis, who rose through the USGA ranks, is not defensive. He has an intense love for the game and his enthusiasm for each year's Open venue is contagious, making it is easy to fall under his spell. But this year, he's lowering expectations. "We're going in with a lot of unknowns," he said in early June.
A fortnight before U.S. Open Sunday, he moved into a stone cottage near the clubhouse so he could be one with his golf course. "From parking to how the course is going to play, there are really a lot of things we just don't know," Davis says. Oakmont opened in 1903 and has held nine Opens. Shinnecock Hills opened in 1891 and next year's Open will be its fifth. Erin Hills opened in 2006.
It was a mellow day at Erin Hills, warm and sunny and windy. John Morrissett, a longtime USGA executive who now works for Erin Hills, was having lunch on an outdoor patio with Jim Reinhart, the general chairman for the championship. Reinhart grew up in Minnesota but now lives in Wisconsin. He entertained a question about which state in the country is the most golf-obsessed. The cognoscenti will tell you: It's not Florida or Arizona or South Carolina. It's either Minnesota (site of last year's Ryder Cup) or Wisconsin, site of this year's U.S. Open. The U.S. Open has been played 116 times. This year marks the first time it is being played in the Badger State. Please, no cheesehead jokes.
Reinhart debated some before giving the nod to Wisconsin. Fifteen feet away a group of players were eating lunch as well. But they were indoors. They'll get enough sun and wind this week. If they order a grilled-cheese sandwich, they may find they've never had a better one in their life. Well, what would you expect?
Elsewhere on the property, tents were going up, the pro shop was coming down, grass was being mown in some places and being cut elsewhere. The U.S. Open is coming to town.