ERIN, Wis. — During a lengthy backup on the elevated tee at the 153-yard, par-3 9th hole Friday, Adam Scott and his caddie, Steve Williams, stood shoulder to shoulder as they discussed in hushed tones the vexing tee shot on what is the shortest hole at Erin Hills. Williams took control, as he is wont to do, imparting advice to Scott and gesturing with his arms as they debated the wind speed and direction.
The tee shot at the 9th, particularly to the back-middle hole location the players faced during the second round of the U.S. Open, requires more precision than any other tee shot on the course—perhaps any shot, period.
Miss left and players ran the risk of their balls trundling off the side or back of the green into one of seven deep, daunting bunkers that ring the putting surface. Miss right and players' balls fell into the swale front-right of the green, which funnels into a collection area. ("The hardest shot on the golf course," Dana Fry, one of the course’s co-architects said earlier in the week, "is the second shot on 9 when you miss the green.") Complicating matters further was the considerable prevailing breeze that blew from right to left.
At the end of Williams and Scott's spirited deliberation, Williams uttered a line no player wants to hear from his caddie: "No, I don't agree."
Moments later Scott addressed his ball, drew back his wedge and tugged his shot long and left into an awkward lie against the back edge of one of the bunkers behind the green. His ensuing shot barely got up and out of the sand from where he two-putted from the fringe for bogey.
On what is the longest U.S. Open course setup in the 117-year history of the tournament, the pint-sized 9th hole (it can play as short as 120 yards) is a welcome reminder that short can pack as potent a punch as long. Early in the round, when the wind was up, the 9th was playing as the toughest hole on the course – tougher than the 249-yard par-3 6th, tougher even than the 525-yard (!) par-4 10th. As the day progressed, scoring improved at No. 9, but the mighty mite still played as the fifth toughest hole overall in the second round with a scoring average of 3.17.
The Erin Hills yardage book sums up the design nicely: "After a series of big holes, the short and precise 9th comes as a jolt to the player."
Pat Perez also summed up the hole, albeit not as nicely. After launching a tee shot that touched down just a few feet short and right of the hole, Perez watched in disgust as his ball rolled into the swale and off the green.
"F---!" Perez yelled as he thumped his wedge into the turf. He then ripped off his glove with such force that he tore the material.
In the group before Perez, the jovial, jiggling Englishman, Andrew (Beef) Johnston, was all smiles and thumbs-ups when he approached the tee. Not so much after his tee shot hit the middle of the green before also falling into the pit of despair. Beef to his caddie: "Oh my God."
The 9th brought out religion in other players, too. When Justin Rose pulled his tee shot there on Friday into one of the bunkers left of the green, the 2013 Open champ bellowed, "Jesus Christ!"
And to think this magnificent little hole was not part of the original layout. When Erin Hills opened in 2006 what is now the most scenic and buzzed-about hole on the course was merely a "bonus" hole that golfers could use to settle deadlocked matches. But several years later, when the course’s owners moved around some other holes and nixed one entirely, the backup hole joined the starting lineup.
"I've said from day one, it's my favorite hole," said Fry, the co-designer. "I think in time it's going to become one of the iconic short holes in golf. I really believe that."
After Scott signed for a 75 Friday afternoon, Williams lugged his man's clubs back to the caddie hospitality pavilion. Williams was reluctant to reveal the specifics of his and Scott's conversation on the 9th tee but he did chirp up when asked if the par-3 reminded him of any other holes.
"No hole is harder than the 12th at Augusta when it comes to decision-making, club selection and allowing for the wind," Williams said. "That hole there is similar to that."