Tour Confidential: What to expect from Erin Hills and who wins the 117th U.S. Open

June 12, 2017

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. We’re all U.S. Open this week as the game’s national championship heads to the state of Wisconsin for the first time. Erin Hills, a relatively new public track ($280 green fee!) is the host. What excites you most about Erin Hills?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): That Dustin Johnson hasn’t slipped on any stairs. (Yet.) Can’t wait to watch him tangle with this brute.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): I find it cool to once again head to a first-time venue. What will be the toughest hole? With par at 72, will scores be low? And what will the pros complain about? It’s all unknown, and I can’t wait to find out.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF (@JoshSens): Not quite as “public” as the $50 course was originally conceived to be. But that’s always a huge part of the appeal of a major at a non-private club: the idea that one day, maybe we’ll get a chance to take our hacks on the same grounds where history played out. Proof of that appeal is the fact that they can now charge $280 for what was originally going to be “blue-collar Whistling Straits.”

Joe Passov, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): I’m most excited to find out what kind of test of golf Erin Hills will offer, via design, setup and weather. I count this as one of the new breed of courses—singular as it is—that can actually demand the full arsenal of clubs from the game’s best due to its gargantuan length and punishing rough and bunkers. There should be no controversy about the pure bentgrass greens. This week, with all its great unknowns, should be really fun.

Josh Berhow, producer, GOLF (@Josh_Berhow): Erin Hills is such an unknown right now regarding what it will yield to players. The wind (if it howls) will be a huge factor. I also love the closing holes. Fifteen is a difficult-but-drivable par-4, and from there it’s a par 3, 4 and 5 coming in. Besides that, it’s Wisconsin, so the obvious answer to this question is cheese curds.

Sean Zak, associate editor, GOLF (@Sean_Zak): I’m excited to see the best in the world study a foreign textbook, so to say. I love seeing the best uncomfortable, but not because of the shape of the course (a la Chambers Bay), so I’m looking forward to how challenging the setup can be, regardless if that’s even par, five under or 15 under.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It’s neat how, at almost every Open venue, the course is the story going in and the players upon it is the story going out. This course is particularly interesting and Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, etc., are compelling players.

John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar (@Johnwould): I’m anxious to see if different types of golfers can compete on this track. After spending the last two days walking around Erin Hills, there is no question it’s beautiful, it’s interesting, and it’s in absolutely wonderful shape. To me a great golf course can be attacked by highly skilled players of all types. I think it’ll be a fantastic test, it’s just so different than what most have always held in their heads as what a U.S. Open is. Tight fairways, heavy rough, etc. These have to be the widest fairways to have ever hosted a U.S. Open, and around the greens, at first glance, it doesn’t seem very penal. So that leaves the defense as wind, length, and green speed. I hope at the end of the week, we can say that at Erin Hills, the Steve Strickers of the world can compete with the Dustin Johnsons.

2. USGA executive director Mike Davis is ever the optimist, but even he has reservations about Erin Hills. “We’re going in with a lot of unknowns,” Davis said recently. What concerns you most about the course?

Shipnuck: Not much! It’s looking pure. The knee-high weeds are a little concerning—I’m hoping this tourney doesn’t hinge on a lost ball.

Ritter: Erin was built for wind to be one of its primary defenses, so I’m a little worried that four calm days might lead to something approaching a shootout, at least by Open standards. Of course, it’s tough enough to kick plenty of guys in the shins either way.

Sens: As Jeff said above, there’s always an element of unknown at a new venue. But what does it matter in the end? As always, they’ll all be playing the same course. When it comes down to it, “concerns” about the course are just distractions for people looking for something to complain about.

Passov: As with most U.S. Open venues, I would prefer that the players and the competition be the story, with the course in the background. We’ve just had way too many U.S. Opens over the years—including the last few—where questionable setup decisions and controversial conditions occupied way too many headlines. Give these guys a stern but fair test, in an attractive and/or historic setting, and let ‘em play.

Berhow: My primary concern is a small child eluding their parents and getting lost in the fescue, because it’s really that long in places, but no, I’m not concerned about much. Players will have their issues, because a few are bound to find something that irks them, but, as Jack used to say, when a player complained it just meant that was one less person he had to beat.

Zak: Unlike Alan, I’m excited for that knee-high fescue! The rough at Oakmont protected the course as much as the tricky greens did, but I’m not sure Erin will boast similar greens difficulty. With that in mind, I’m most interested in seeing how the course protects par. I think that fescue is necessary here. But how necessary?

Bamberger: Well, this course basically was built to host a U.S. Open. The HUGE nature of it, in width and length, is on a scale that is of no value to everyday, $50 green-fee golf. But for this one purpose, it should be grand. The rounds will be ABSURDLY slow. I’m guessing six hours by Friday afternoon.

Wood: For those with a serious chance to contend, those that are playing very well, the fescue won’t pose a problem. The fairways are very generous, and if a professional golfer in a U.S. Open is swinging well, he just won’t visit the fescue much. My main concern is with Michael. If the wind gets up to say, 20 mph, out of the west or southwest, which is prevailing and expected, I think the rounds could be absurdly long. If the green speeds get up to 13, 14 on the stimpmeter and we get wind, I’m not sure we can play golf with a 20-mph wind here with those green speeds. But yes, the rounds, especially the first two days, will be very very slow.

3. Adam Scott pleaded for a kinder, gentler course setup. Will the blue blazers oblige?

Shipnuck: Four par-5s and wider than usual fairways should lead to lower scoring. Unless the USGA does something over the top. They wouldn’t do that. Right?

Ritter: Well, Mike Davis said last month he had no plan to push it beyond 8,000 yards, even though he could. So, maybe Scott wins this round. He might win the Open, too.

Sens: I expect the USGA to approach it much as a player might. They will see what the course gives them on Thursday and adapt accordingly. If for some reason Erin Hills proves too vulnerably in the early goings, there are things that can be done about that.

Passov: I’m with Josh on this one. The USGA has to be fried from all of the negatives surrounding rules, course setups and conditions and the like. If the wind lays down this week, they can always firm up and speed up the greens. If it blows 20+ (not in the current forecast on any day), they can always move tees up and sprinkle extra water on the turf. We don’t need “kinder/gentler” for our national championship. I like the course to play tough for the U.S. Open—but tough and interesting, not tough and one-dimensional.

Berhow: I think the USGA will try to make it a difficult but fair test without stirring it up too much. After Chambers Bay drew criticism and after last year’s rules-ridden final round in Oakmont, I would guess the USGA is hoping for a smooth-sailing championship.

Zak: I really don’t anticipate a Chambers Bay-like response to the new course. Remember, they’ve kept this thing basically off-limits since October. That being said, the USGA doesn’t bend easily in response to anyone. Sorry, Adam.

Bamberger: I think the USGA is looking for a TV show and Adam Scott will get his wish and Hogan will spin again, as he did when Scott won the Masters with the long putter, when caddies started reading greens via a map and when players started failing to show up for Friday tee-times after shooting Thursday 77s.

Wood: I definitely think it is an easier setup in terms of fairway width and lack of penal rough around the greens. It all depends on how fast the greens get, how much the wind blows, and how firm they let the golf course get. I think the USGA will get it right this time, and the story come next Monday will be about the golf course and the winner, nothing else.

4. Six-time Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, who briefly had a share of the lead at FedEx St. Jude Classic before finishing ninth, has a Thursday afternoon tee time but has announced that he plans to attend his daughter’s graduation. Will Phil, who needs an Open title to complete the career grand slam, have a last-minute change of heart?

Shipnuck: My daughter just gave a speech at *fifth-grade* graduation and it woulda killed me to miss it, so I get where Phil is coming from. I think a Thursday thunderstorm is our only hope.

Ritter: Agreed. Phil is obviously serious about this, and there’s no turning back now.

Sens: Right. Graduation it is. Then a scramble to try to get to Wisconsin in time for Thursday afternoon. At least he doesn’t have to wait in a long TSA line at the airport.

Passov: There’s always a chance he’ll play, whether or not there’s a weather delay, but his head and heart are in the right place. He doesn’t NEED a U.S. Open victory to change my mind about his place in the game. I’d root for him, and it would be a fantastic story, but whether he wins, loses, or doesn’t play, he’ll continue to be regarded as the second-greatest player of his generation, and that ain’t bad.

Berhow: Nah. I think his best chance of making it is if his daughter orders him to miss her graduation and play the Open (and maybe she has, who knows), but if that hasn’t happened yet I don’t think it will. It’s in Mother Nature’s hands now.

Zak: I believe Phil when he says he cares about the U.S. Open more than any other event. I also believe him when he says this was an easy decision to make. Considering the weather for Thursday seems to be perfect, I’m ready to put this story to bed.

Bamberger: Berhow speaks for me.

Wood: I don’t expect to see Phil unless we get a big rain delay on Thursday and Phil can start his tournament on Friday. And even then, even if my buddy Bones is out there every day all day during the practice rounds doing his work (and nobody does his work better than Bones), I can’t see someone competing here without playing a few practice rounds. I think Phil is doing the right thing, of course he’s doing the right thing, and if we get some lighting on Thursday, you’ll know the Golf Gods want Phil to have a shot.

5. Wisconsin’s own Steve Stricker, who made it through sectional qualifying, would be the most sentimental choice as a surprise champion. Stricker and the obvious favorites aside, who would be your best feel-good winner?

Shipnuck: Fowler. He’s the most popular player in the game and it would supercharge his career.

Ritter: If he parachutes in Friday morning and goes on to win, Phil essentially writes a straight-to-DVD Hollywood movie. Fowler is also a good pick—it’s getting lonely for him on that “best player without a major” list.

Sens: Film rights for sure. But I’d still rather watch Wonder Woman. Or almost anything but a golf movie. Fowler is a great feel-good pick. I can’t top that one.

Passov: I can’t think of a better feel-good winner than Fowler. I’m a big fan, having seen the way he interacts with fans and sponsors; it would be great for golf and hopefully TV ratings. He also has very good U.S. Open numbers coming into this year’s event—tops in total driving, sixth in strokes gained putting and 10th in putting from 15 to 25 feet. There’s also his five top 10s, including a win. It seems like it’s his time.

Berhow: Lotta Rickie going on here. How about Dru Love? He made the field as an alternate and dad Davis Love III is his caddie this week. That’s now three generations of Loves in the U.S. Open.

Zak: Of the very realistic options, how about Jason Day, considering the ups and downs of his last 12 months.

Bamberger: Sergio. Engaged to a Texas girl. Lives in Orlando. Speaks beautiful English. After so much major-championship pain, to go two-for-two here would be way cool.

Wood: I always predict a Kuchar victory, and this week is no different. But I’m gonna throw out a name that will be talked about quite a bit after this week. Texas A&M’s Cameron Champ. I’ve seen him hit a golf ball, and if he can control his emotions and his mind and continue to swing as good as he is swinging, he will hit some drives that DJ and Bubba might just say “Wow” at. I’m not saying he will have a shot at the Hollywood ending you’re talking about, but he may just put some scare into those setting up major courses for the next 10 years or so.

6. We haven’t seen a Monday playoff since the epic duel between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate at the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines. Is it time for the USGA to rethink its 18-hole playoff?

Shipnuck: It’s death for magazine writers but I still love it. The whole world has gone soft—at least the Open playoff remains macho.

Ritter: The loudest reactions I’ve ever heard in a golf media center are those involving Sunday afternoon shots that could produce a playoff. I’m torn on it—I like that it’s tough and special to the U.S. Open, but I also think a four-hole aggregate would more than get the job done.

Sens: Keep it. The main reasons to change it would have to do with money and television, and isn’t there enough of that influence in sports already?

Passov: I’m a card-carrying conservative when it comes to tradition in golf, but I say it’s long overdue to dump the 18-hole playoff. Besides the massive inconvenience factor for every entity involved, it just feels completely anti-climatic.

Berhow: I’m a fan of the 18-hole playoff, but I love it like I love the island green at TPC Sawgrass and the party that is the Phoenix Open. They are cool because they are different and there’s a place for them—just not every week. If every major used the 18-hole playoff I wouldn’t like it as much. But as Jeff said, it makes our national championship special. Also makes Monday daytime TV way better.

Zak: No! Keep it! Anything that draws the popular attention of the sports world to the golf world (and isn’t a rules controversy) is a great thing.

Bamberger: Dump it. Nobody likes it. Not even the USGA. Have co-winners.

Wood: No. I understand it’s anti-climactic and the TV viewers want a winner NOW, but it’s my opinion that no major should be decided by sudden death. I like the idea of a 3-5 hole rota best, but until then, I’d rather have 18 holes than one.

7. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is bidding to become the first U.S. Open champion to successfully defend his title since Curtis Strange in 1989. Does DJ get it done? In any event, who are your win, place and show picks, and what will the winning score be?

Shipnuck: Dustin four under, Day two under, Kuchar one under.

Ritter: Spieth wins at eight under. Fowler and DJ two back.

Sens: Rose five under, Spieth four under, Rahm even.

Passov: I’ve been picking Spieth since 2015, primarily because it was defensible: He’s pretty good at this game, and he came close at the 2011 U.S. Amateur held at Erin Hills, where he was 2 up with five to play in the quarterfinals before losing. With no Puget Sound, but good greens, Erin Hills’ look and scale will remind some of Chambers Bay, where Spieth won his U.S. Open in 2015, beating DJ by a stroke. Look for the same result this time. Spieth will finish eight under. DJ is the best player in the game right now, and he wins at all kinds of courses, but he’ll finish seven under. Should be awesome.

Berhow: Dustin Johnson wins at five under, Justin Rose is the runner-up for the second straight major and Mr. Lee Westwood is third.

Zak: I’ve convinced myself that Jason Day will continue his recent solid form and that Erin Hills will play very similar to Whistling Straits (at least for him). Not to the extent of 20 under, obviously, but I like him to win at something like seven under. Jordan Spieth and Jamie Lovemark (dark horse!) round out the top three.

Bamberger: Jon Rahm, Pat Perez, Paul Casey.

Wood: I’ve already made my pick—I’ll just say the winning score will be eight under.