When Dr. Michael Hurzdan, Dana Fry, Mike Hurzdan, and Ron Whitten developed this course with the blessing of Mike Davis and the USGA for a U.S. Open Championship, they presumed the wind would be the wild card in making it a championship test.
For three days there was no wind to speak of and with rain softened greens the players had their way with this layout mocking par along the way. But winds of 20+ mph greeted them for the Sunday round of this Major Championship and the design features of this layout will have their say in the outcome of this U.S. Open.
USGA got its wish….blue skies and winds up for the final roundEmbed from Getty Images
Unlike any U.S. Open venue in recent memory, Erin Hills is not about narrowed playing parameters with a long grass punishing any miss on drive or approach no matter how slight. Historically it is Hack-A-Mole pitching from 6 inch green side bluegrass where it is more luck than talent in saving a par.
Instead Erin Hills is a roomy minimalist design that traverses rolling and swerving topography with innovative green complexes that put a premium on using the ground as your friend to get at cloistered pin positions. There is tight short grass around these green complexes which have severe fall offs and punishing bunkers awaiting shots without sufficient intent. A creative and innovative recovery short game, much like what you see on display at many on the European Tour events, will pay great dividends for the first time in memory in a U.S. Open.
Brian Harman’s dexterous approach into the Par 4 Third Hole
In watching this week the look and feel of Erin Hills reminds me of some of the links jewels I have played on the Emerald Isle of Ireland. The unrelenting design challenge of Pat Ruddy’s European Club and Eddie Hackett’s Enniscrone come to mind. Both have swerving undulating topography, tall fescue to greet wayward shots, and raised, tilted, and undulating green complexes where angle of attack can make a big difference in getting an approach close.
Rickie Fowler misses his line off the tee and pays the steep priceEmbed from Getty Images
In a similar way Erin Hills has contoured driving areas that favor a particular shot shape to find the advantageous approach position or stay out of the tall fescue. Into the greens there are plenty of forced carries required, not many places where the player can bounce it short and feed it on. When the wind gets up it becomes more of an issue of strategic use of the interior green contour to slow and feed the approach to the pin of the day.
The early broadcast featured the voice of Gil Hanse, one of the premier designers of this generation, and he contributed valued insight into how the design will play into the strategic approach required to control shot outcome for those in the thick of this championship run.
The heightened wind makes negotiating the sharp edges of the green complexes and avoiding the evil decree of the near misses all the more difficult. Short side recoveries in the cross winds become much harder to convert into par saves. The slightest misjudgement of pace on a downwind pitch can result in an unexpected roll out off the putting surface leaving an equally problematic four-story pitch back up the slope.
With the precipice greens totally exposed to the wind’s effect reading the greens can be like reading a Ouija Board. Figuring control of the line and roll out to avoid knee knocker six-foot comeback putts is a must to avoid a scorecard hemorrhage.
Jordan negotiating his approach putt on the windswept 9th greenEmbed from Getty Images
Lengthening of the downwind short par three ninth from 130 to 170 may actually help the guys since it is easier to flight down an eight iron than a wedge or sand wedge. The problem remains the Roberto Clemente Memorial pin position in a tight Bermuda Triangle in the back of the green. Missing the flag by five paces in any direction may mean calling in the Coast Guard for search and recovery.
He pointed out that the short par fours and the two five pars on the back nine may be the hardest to reconcile. Making a decision to take on one of these “driveable” four pars is enticing but the degree of difficulty of recovery if you miss these blinded targets makes that decision somewhat specious. Same goes for hoisting a long and high approach at flags on the two potentially reachable par fives. With the thought of a game changing eagle in mind the margin of error from hero to goat could be four steps in one direction or the other.
No question the unique design of Erin Hills coupled with the stiff winds that took four days to appear will make this Sunday round look more like an Open Championship finish at Muirfield than a typical U.S. Open finale.