ERIN, Wis. — Professional golfers don't care about justice, they care only about their score. When they use the word "fair" it is code for "so easy I'm already shopping for a new jet." So how did Erin Hills present itself on the opening day of the 117th U.S. Open?
"I thought it was very, very fair," said Brandt Snedeker.
At a tournament that is supposed to produce carnage, the scoreboard bled red numbers. Rickie Fowler's bogeyless 65 (seven under) tied the lowest opening round in relation to par in U.S. Open history. More than a dozen other players broke 70, none of them major championship winners. The word "easy" was tossed around by the likes of Dru Love, who happened to be playing in his first professional event. Fowler called his historic round "stress-free." Snedeker made so many birdies – seven – on the way to a 70 he admitted to feeling "guilty," and then he added the ultimate sacrilege: "This feels like a Tour event right now. Birdies are what you need, not pars." Added Charley Hoffman (70), "If you're ever going to get a U.S. Open and be able to score, today was the day."
What turned big, bad Erin Hills into such a pushover? For starters, it was designed to be played in strong, steady winds, but Thursday the breeze was quite mild, particularly in the morning. The unprecedentedly wide fairways – "You could fit three fairways at Winged Foot into the 10th fairway [at Erin Hills]," says USGA executive director Mike Davis — played even wider after being rain-softened, and so the field could hit driver with impunity. Brian Harman (67) wielded the big stick on 13 of 14 non par-3s. So did Patrick Reed (68).
"There's no hold back, no trying to choke something down and cut it and get it in the fairway," said Snedeker. "It's tee it high and hit it as hard as you can." What breeze there was came from the west, the opposite of Wednesday's zephyrs. That meant most of the toughest holes played downwind or with a right-to-left crosswind, meaning righthanded players could bank hard draws. The only two holes that played dead into the wind were the 10th, with its huge fairway, and the 2nd, a petite par-4 of only 330 yards.
With the greens softened by early week rains, "you can get to them with any club," said Dustin Johnson (75). The beautifully smooth surfaces are rolling at about 12.5 on the Stimpmeter, significantly slower than many other Opens. "The greens are absolutely the best putting surfaces I've ever seen," said Snedeker. "They're a perfect speed, the ball is hugging its line, and so you're gonna see guys making a ton of putts."
With thunderstorms forecast for Thursday night (and Saturday) it is unlikely Erin Hills will dry out enough to become a firm, fast, fiery test. Still, the players are under no illusion that Erin Hills will remain so user-friendly. "This morning was the best we're going to get all week," said Tommy Fleetwood (67). "It was quite receptive early on and you had to make the most of it." In this way the opening round evoked the first round at the 2015 U.S. Open, played on another unfamiliar venue in Chambers Bay. With a setup that erred on the benign side, 44 players finished under par at Erin Hills on Thursday.
"I think today was an experiment for the USGA to get a better feel for the course," said Fleetwood. "They didn't want to beat us up too badly. Now that they know how the course plays and what the scoring is like they can start tightening the screws."
Erin Hills played at 7,845 yards on Thursday but it can be tipped out by another 300. Pin positions will almost certainly get tougher and the rough, irrigated by the rain, will grow longer and thicker. Fleetwood credited his round more to caution than bravado: "You still have to stay patient and play for par. I never once tried to make birdie today I just happened to get a few."
Snedeker expects the leaders to back up, beginning Friday. "I'd be shocked if seven under wins this golf tournament," he said.
Ernie Els sounded a similar note of caution. He played the front nine in a four-under 32 but limped in with a 38 as the wind was freshening. At any moment early in the round did he feel bad about going so deep at the U.S. Open? "S---, I don't feel guilty," Els said. "I enjoyed it. If you're off just a little bit here you can shoot a million. This course is still very tough. You gotta enjoy the birdies as they come because I have a feeling they're going to be harder to find the next three days."