Midwestern Mystery: At the Erin Hills Open, an unknown course awaits its big moment

June 14, 2017

Tell grandpa he’s watching the right channel. Yes, the course is treeless, windswept and hilly, with wide fairways framed by long, bowing fescue rough. But, no, this isn’t a rerun of an old British Open. He’s watching the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a rugged, 11-year-old inland public course (with a $280 green fee) in Wisconsin’s working countryside, 35 miles and a world away from downtown.

Erin Hills was built on 600 acres of fertile farmland. Its three architects cleared out nearly every tree, got their bulldozer drivers drunk (no, not literally) and created a golfing playground that is vast in every way. (All stretched out, the course can play over 7,800 yards.) This is a verdant ball-in-the-air American course built on heavy brown dirt. Most of the greens are elevated, and the goal is to fly the ball to the hole. At a British Open, players often bounce shots into the green, and they might not hit driver three times in a round. At Erin Hills, guys will hit drivers all day long.

Dustin Johnson, the insanely long defending champion, visited Erin Hills early this month and over a dinner in the fieldstone clubhouse changed the conversation from fast boats and fine wine to tell his table, “This course is big.” There was awe in his tone, which was noted by his fellow diners because Dustin Johnson doesn’t do awe.

The USGA needs a good U.S. Open. The last Open-for-the-ages came in 2008, when Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines. The six after that were fine, but not compelling.

Then in 2015, and again last year, the Open was overwhelmed by various oddities. In ’15, Jordan Spieth won over Johnson at Chambers Bay, a course near Tacoma, Wash., that looked spectacular on TV but was mocked by some players for its awkwardness and derided by many more when the greens turned to overcooked broccoli (mushy and bumpy) on the weekend. The final act was Johnson three-putting from 12 feet to lose by a shot. What a note to go home on.

Last year, at Oakmont, the green speeds were borderline ridiculous given the severity of their slopes, and Johnson won despite a one-shot post-round penalty after officials deemed he had caused his ball to move on the 5th green. What a note to go home on.

So this one is big, in every way. Also, a mystery. Before the Open, Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, was both being honest and lowering expectations: “From parking to how the course is going to play, there are really a lot of things we just don’t know.”
 In the privacy of their practice rounds, players made jokes about the country hikes, mocked the rough that will cost them strokes (and most likely balls) and wondered why the USGA is so damn nasty. It wouldn’t be a U.S. Open if the players weren’t agitated about something, right? But they were also largely positive about the golf course. “This is nothing like Chambers Bay,” Johnson said. “You can’t compare them. This is a good course.”

Tiger Woods is not playing this year, as he rehabs from another back surgery. Mark Loomis, the golf producer for Fox Sports, asked Woods (through his agent) if he would like to work as a guest commentator. Tiger, a three-time U.S. Open champ, all on public courses, would most likely have some interesting insights. But a Woods appearance at Erin Hills is a long long shot. Besides, he can always provide his commentary by way of Twitter, from the comfort of his South Florida home. That’s what he did last year, when he congratulated Johnson for “overcoming that rules farce.”

But tournament golf is not about staying home. Tournament golf is a road game. This week there are equipment reps, USGA officials, reporters, businesspeople on expense accounts and thousands of actual paying golf fans staying in the downtown Milwaukee hotels. They head to Erin Hills each morning by shuttle bus, rolling along I-this and I-that, past a Dick’s Sporting Goods, past a Harley-Davidson factory.

And then, with one sudden left turn, the pilgrims turn off I-45 and onto Holy Hill Road, long and heaving and rural, past a vast cathedral and a small ski hill, past a pub with a deep beer list and a Friday fish-fry, past a place or two where Erin’s nocturnal Loch Ness monster—Goatman, with the body of a man and the head of a goat—has been spotted, or so some locals claim. And that’s where most of the players are, in rented houses in Erin and surrounding Washington County. In the sticks, where Goatman roams. Try sleeping on that.

So this one will be different. The fellas are out of their gated golf communities now, out of their comfort zones, playing the great American championship on a big, unknown heartland course with songbirds at sunrise, lord-knows-what at night and distant flagsticks all day long. This should be interesting. This could get intense.