Now that we’ve had some time to sit back and digest the results of this year’s U.S. Open, we have to ask the question: should the USGA return to Erin Hills to host its national championship? I have my answer – and for a different perspective I recruited my friend and teammate Jack Musgrave to share his thoughts.
The U.S. Open is currently suffering an identity crisis. Rather than reclaim its place as the greatest test in golf, the U.S. Open at Erin Hills this year produced record low field scores because of a comparatively mild course layout that did not punish poor shots – a hallmark of the U.S. Open. Extremely wide fairways, accessible pin placements, and mostly wide-open green complexes with shaved collection areas allowed players to save par after bad shots at alarmingly high rates. During the broadcast, Fox commentators (who still talk too much – looking at you Shane O’Donoghue) did discuss an important point on Thursday and Friday – the idea that players were navigating Erin Hills largely without fear. Players attacked the course all week because they knew saving par would be much easier than in previous years.
The point of America’s national championship should be to truly identify the most complete player within a given week. It is a tournament which in the past has rewarded only the truly great performances with low scores. Players who consistently avoided mistakes and capitalized on scoring opportunities have thrived. Tiger in 2000 and Rory in 2011 come to mind as players who put together near perfect weeks resulting in record-breaking tournaments.
Now, it is important to understand that there is no problem with a very low winning score. Brooks Koepka played phenomenally and is a very deserving champion. He was among the leaders in fairways hit (T4), greens hit (1), and birdies (T2). The issue lies with so many players reaching deep red numbers. When Tiger and Rory won they were the only players at double digit under par numbers. This year, 7 players finished at least -10. They each would have won every single U.S. Open in history outside of 2000 and 2011 with those scores.
Furthermore, the cut line was +1 at Erin Hills, tying the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah as the lowest cut line number in history. The same score after 4 rounds would have won or gotten into a playoff at Winged Foot in 2006, Oakmont in 2007, Olympic in 2012, and Merion in 2013. When low numbers pervade golf tournaments, it means that the course is setup in such a way that it does not punish mistakes as severely as it could, or as in the case of a U.S. Open, should.
That said, focusing too much on numbers is a mistake – it is the course layout at Erin Hills (which produced such low numbers) that does not keep with what a traditional US Open should entail. Many golf analysts have rejoiced in Erin Hill’s decided lack of high rough near the fairways or punishing green complexes, seeing it as a step in the correct direction for the USGA in presenting a more fair championship. I see it as them abandoning the U.S. Open’s role as golf’s toughest test.
There is a reason the Open Championship is not held at great venues like Swinley Forest, Gleneagles, or Sunningdale – they are not links-style courses and the Open Championship is the world’s greatest links golf tournament. The U.S. Open is the most difficult golf tournament in the world to win. It should be held at a venue which can provide such a test. Erin Hills is a beautiful course and suitable for an exciting golf tournament, just not the U.S. Open. Bring on Shinnecock Hills and a return to golfing blood, sweat and tears.
*with a few changes
I enjoyed watching the U.S. Open, and I enjoyed experiencing Erin Hills for the first time. My biggest criticism of the course was that people wouldn’t stop talking about their criticisms of the course. And yet, here I am giving my criticism of the course.
I would be in favor of the USGA choosing to return to Erin Hills in the future. The venue provided a Sunday leaderboard that featured all kinds of different playing styles, and this was definitely the best aspect of the course. As the fried egg noted in some of their tournament coverage, Erin Hills is “the rare fair fight” that allows this kind of diversity of playing styles. Shouldn’t that be how golf is played? Isn’t the whole point that you can gain strokes on the field in the strong areas of your game?
I think people can become so focused on making the U.S. Open hard that they forget how to do it fairly. Take, for example, the traditional U.S. Open practice of having thick rough around the green. Erin Hills (like Chambers Bay) did away with that, instead opting for closely-mown slopes that could funnel golf balls as far as 50 yards away, but usually still in the short grass. What does that do? It means that people with a great short game scoring ability can take advantage of their skills when missing the green. If I miss the green at Oakmont, and it rolls into 5-inch rough, it doesn’t matter how good my short game is – I’m probably not going to get it up and down. Thick rough like that places an undisputed premium on ball striking. Erin Hills shows that you can have a steep penalty for missing the green but still reward a good short game.
The other common criticism of the course was that the fairways are simply too wide. This is a point that I have more sympathy for, because it pretty much took a complete mishit for someone to miss the fairway. And then, sometimes, players would miss the fairway by so much that they would end up in the grass trampled down by spectators and have a great lie! Very bizarre.
I understand that with wide fairways, angles into the green become very important (for more on this, see the fried egg’s article here). However, I think this argument only extends so far. When you hit it as far as Koepka, you have such a short club in your hand that the angle into the green isn’t all that important.
I would suggest that the USGA pinches in the landing area as it gets farther from the tee box – so that the farther you hit it, the narrower the fairway should be. That way, bombers can take a riskier play by hitting driver, or they can lay back, which would re-emphasize having the proper angle into the flagstick. The longer guys don’t lose their advantage, but they have to really decide to hit driver.
I think with this small change, the USGA would be in good shape to host another open here. Erin Hills has some great things going for it: the course was so pure, the state of Wisconsin was extremely welcoming, and it produced a really exciting tournament. I would be willing to sacrifice a little of the “US Open carnage” for the kind of leaderboard we saw last Sunday.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know.