ERIN, Wis. — Bifurcation is a $5 word used by cardiologists but avoided by the golf administrators at the USGA. In golf, the term is used most commonly in rules discussions, a shorthand to describe a system by which there would be a set of rules (and equipment standards) for us (the duffing class) and them (the elites). The USGA despises the notion of bifurcation, as do many players and virtually all equipment manufacturers. They want us to buy what they’re selling.
But if Erin Hills has proved anything in these gauzy days leading up to the first round, it is that the game is in desperate need of bifurcation, and that, in actual fact, bifurcation is all around us. In the example being outlined here, I speak not of rules bifurcation. That already exists. (We move it out of divot holes and Tour players do not.) Not equipment bifurcation, which is really not a thing (Who among us would want to play a nonconforming ball? Nobody!), but course bifurcation. Erin Hills is proof of the existence of course bifurcation.
Erin Hills is a not a golf course as most of us know the term. But it is a spectacular and appropriate stage for our national open. It is not a course that anybody in his or her right mind would want to play three times a week. In other words, it is a course for them, now and again. If it all goes well this week, you can expect to see Erin Hills in the regular U.S. Open rotation, alongside Oakmont and Pebble Beach. In the years in between, we’ll fill it up. That’s because we want to walk where they’ve walked. Whether that makes sense or not is another question.
Anticipation is one of humankind’s most powerful emotions. The building of Erin Hills is a wild story and the course is a knockout. It’s an irresistible package. This year’s U.S. Open could be just what the doctor ordered, after the agronomy-and-design debacle at Chambers Bay in 2015 and the rules-and-green-speed debacle at Oakmont last year. For three days now, Mike Davis and Brandel Chamblee and Rory McIlroy and Erin’s three architects and Wisconsin’s own Steve Stricker have been telling us how good and special the course is, and it was impossible not to get swept up in that pre-game lovefest. You can only imagine how hard it will be to get a tee time from now until the first snow of late fall. Maybe, at $280, they’re not charging enough.
But I have learned my hard-sell lesson over the year, and now I’m going to view Open courses differently. When I played Erin Hills in 2010, losing many balls and shooting a thousand and being worn-out by its hills, I can’t say I liked it and I can’t say I had any desire to play it again. In more recent days, I’ve had the chance to see Jim Furyk and Dustin Johnson and others play it. It looks totally different, seeing the course through their eyes. It looks playable. All I saw was the foot-high rough and impossible greens. Golf-course bifurcation.
We cannot and should not play courses where you struggle to find your ball every time you hit it in the rough, and can hardly advance if it you do. Ditto for courses where you cannot bounce your ball into the green. Ditto for courses we can’t play in five hours, where we can’t really have a match, where we will almost certainly lose several balls, chip twice on small holes, play two or more greenside bunker shots on some holes, have repeated three-putt greens. How can we play a match under those conditions? We can’t. Which means we’re out there for a glorified walk.
My wakeup call came at the 2013 U.S. Open, at Merion. It is a course I know well. It is a pleasing walk with small, interesting greens and nearby tees. When the rough is playable, it is a thoroughly enjoyable course. But the course as some members play it three times a week was (I realize now) bastardized by the USGA. The fairways were turned into sidewalks. The rough was gruesome. (Torrential rain on Thursday did not help.) Unnecessary bunkers were added. The players did not use the clubhouse or start off the first tee. It seemed like they were playing Merion, but they weren’t. If you want to have a U.S. Open at Merion, then let the fellas play Merion. That’s what the R&A does every year on its Open courses, and what the guys shoot is what they shoot.
The USGA fell in love with Erin Hills because it looks to be ideal for a U.S. Open, not because Mike Davis or anybody else from the USGA wanted to play it three days a week. Here’s hoping we have a great U.S. Open. Erin Hills is an Open course. That’s a good starting place for them. It’s good for us, too—if we’re watching on TV.