The debate is as old as the hills: What sort of course should host a U.S. Open? Opinions vary, considering how much a person values tradition, reputation, geography and innovation. It depends on your taste in hills, too.
Erin Hills, a practically brand new layout carved from farmland 50 minutes northwest of Milwaukee, is the site for the championship that begins Thursday. And it could not be more distinct from Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, which will be the venue next year, celebrating its status as the only course to hold U.S. Opens in three centuries.
So this week represents quite a juxtaposition. As golfers arrive at the sprawling grounds in Wisconsin (Erin Hills’ footprint is more than twice that of Shinnecock Hills), the official countdown begins (ticket sales start tomorrow) for the 2018 Open at one of the U.S. Golf Association’s founding-member clubs.
Think of it this way: The last time Shinnecock followed a first-time Open venue was 1896, when there had been only one U.S. Open ever. The exclusive club that sits on a main road to one of the world’s great resort areas was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. That same year, entrepreneur Bob Lang began accepting bids to build Erin Hills. The latter is a privately owned public course that never has witnessed a sizable professional tournament.
The USGA nonetheless fell in love with the landscape, awarding the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links to Erin Links before the construction was completed. The association, wanting to mix forward-thinking with its respect for history, agreed in 2010 to bring the Open there.
As a golf entity, it remains a vast question mark, which possibly a way appropriate for a pro golf season that has no overriding theme. Defending U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson entered 2017 as the favorite any time he showed up, but he never even teed it up in the Masters because he was injured in a fall at his Augusta rental home. He has not regained his form.
Rory McIlroy has been injured. Jordan Spieth and Jason Day have not achieved the dominance for which they seemed destined two years ago. Masters champion Sergio Garcia has been essentially on a victory lap since his heartwarming triumph in April. Phil Mickelson declared himself doubtful at best to play this week because the Open conflicts with his daughter’s high school graduation. Mickelson is hoping for a postponement Thursday — along the lines of Bethpage in 2009 — so he can make it, but the forecast is for sun.
No one can say what type of player is favored at Erin Hills, with its 7,693 yards of tumbling fairways and deep bunkers, because hardly any of them have played it in competition. Early speculation has tied it to Chambers Bay, the new course that hosted the 2015 U.S. Open to generally poor reviews. It appeared shockingly brown on the Fox telecasts.
But Jordan Spieth, the winner at Chambers Bay and a quarterfinalist in the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills, said of the latter venue, “ It’s not as tricky. I think it’s a little bit more in front of you. It’s a very different style golf course even though it’s kind of coming off ahead of time as being similar.
“Chambers Bay, you had big mounds to play off of onto the greens. This is kind of rolling hills. Although neither one has a tree that I remember on the golf course, it was kind of a new style American links type, they both are, I think they’ll play tremendously different,” he said.
It certainly has a different pedigree than Shinnecock Hills. Charlie Howe, championship director for the 2018 Open, has been in Wisconsin all week, helping his USGA colleagues. “It’s all hands on deck,” he said on his cell phone the other day as he strung gallery ropes. “From a golf course standpoint, outside the ropes, there is a little more space here for hospitality facilities and the Fox TV compound.”
On the other hand, Shinnecock has the benefit of familiarity — with Southampton Town and Suffolk County officials, with traffic flow, with logistics in general. Also, there is a built-in base for volunteers. Still, he and his staff are recruiting more (2018volunteers.usga.org). There are openings for people to be marshals, help at the practice tee, operate scoreboards, use lasers to measure the length of shots.
Howe moved to Westhampton last October to begin preparations. It did not take him long to learn there is no place quite like Shinnecock, particularly after he played the course recently.
“Members have told me that this is the best they have ever seen the course come out of a winter,” he said. “It was such a mild winter. We’re hoping to have one more of those.”
Winter seems a long way away now. It figures to be a wide-open Open week in Wisconsin, with the clock having started ticking down toward Southampton.
Tale of the Tape
Erin Hills, site of 2017 U.S. Open
Shinnecock Hills, site of 2018 U.S. Open
Location: EH—Erin, Wisconsin
Course style: EH—Links-like
Membership: EH—Public course, privately owned
SH—Private, among the nation’s most exclusive clubs
Architects: EH—Dana Fry, Mike Hurdzan, Ron Whitten
SH—Willie Davis, Willie Dunn, C.B. Macdonald, William Flynn. Updated in 2012 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw
Scandal: EH—Steve Trattner, one of the principals who built the club, is in Waupun Correctional Facility, serving a 35-year sentence for killing his wife.
SH—Stanford White, architect of the clubhouse (the first in the country), was murdered in 1906 by the husband of his former lover. Killing occurred at Madison Square Garden, another building White designed.
Previous tournaments:EH—2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, 2011 U.S. Amateur
SH—1896 U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur; 1977 Walker Cup; 1986, 1995, 2004 U.S. Opens
Noteworthy hole: EH—637-yard 18th, one of the few par-5 finishing holes in major championship golf.
SH—150-yard 11th, a par-3 so deceptively difficult that Lee Trevino once called it the shortest par-5 in the world.
U.S. OPEN FACTS
What: 117th U.S. Open Championship.
When: First-round play begins Thursday.
Where: Erin Hill Golf Club, Erin, Wis. (35 miles northwest of Milwaukee), a public course opened in 2006.
Course: 7,741 yards, par 72 (36-36)
Layout: A links-style course, with rolling terrain and no trees, surrounded by wetlands and a river. The track lies at the southern end of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine, the dramatic landscape having been shaped by glacier activity from eons ago.
Field: 156 players
Cut: Top 60 players and ties. If a playoff is necessary, it’s 18 holes on June 19
Purse: $12 million
Last year: Dustin Johnson won his first major championship by closing with a 1-under 69 for a three-shot victory at Oakmont.
Key statistic: This is the first time since Pebble Beach in 1992 that a U.S. Open is a par 72.
Making good: Dustin Johnson became the seventh player to win the U.S. Open one year after he was runner-up. The others were Tiger Woods, Payne Stewart, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, John McDermott and Alex Smith.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (FS1), 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Ch. 5); Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Ch. 5); Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (Ch. 5).