No one quite sure what to expect at U.S. Open ... again

By Doug FergusonJune 8, 2017, 11:06 pm

Going somewhere new for the U.S. Open is starting to get old.

For so many years, everyone knew what to expect. With few exceptions, the event's identity as the ''toughest test in golf'' was carved out of traditional, tree-lined courses with tight fairways and thick rough, firm and fast greens. No one ever complained about making par.

Dustin Johnson won last year at Oakmont, which hosted the U.S. Open for the ninth time. He defends his title on a course that only opened 11 years ago.

For the second time in three years, the U.S. Open is headed to a course that has never hosted a major.

The stage this year is Erin Hills, the first U.S. Open in Wisconsin. The course looks like a links with its wispy grass framing rolling fairways and shaved slopes around the greens, except that it's nowhere the sea. Erin Hills is about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee.

''I heard it's long. Big course. Long walk,'' Johnson said before going up on June 3 to see it for the first time. ''Trees? No trees?''

He wasn't sure.

About the only similarities between Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, which hosted the U.S. Open two years ago off Puget Sound in Washington state, are that both were built as public golf courses and are mostly devoid of trees.

And no one is sure what to expect, even if they've already been there.

Jordan Spieth played the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills. He remembers rolling terrain and not many trees. He remembered the first hole and the 18th hole were par 5s (similar to Chambers Bay). And that was about it.

''Course knowledge is necessary, even more so there than a course like Oakmont that you've maybe watched on TV,'' said Spieth, who won at Chambers Bay by one shot over Johnson. ''Even seeing certain holes, if you just watched major championships in the past, can help you. And so when you come to a completely new venue, it requires quite a bit of work.''

Against this backdrop – pristine pastureland that dates to the Ice Age when a glacier retreated across Wisconsin – the 117th U.S. Open begins June 15 with plenty of intrigue that goes beyond the mystery of a new golf course.

It will be the first U.S. Open in 25 years that doesn't have the names Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson among the starting times. Woods is missing all the majors for the second straight year because of a fourth back surgery, which was a month before his DUI arrest in Florida. Mickelson, with a record six runner-up finishes in the only major he hasn't won, said he plans to skip because his daughter's high school graduation is the same day as the opening round.

Johnson, who shipped the U.S. Open trophy back to the USGA a couple of weeks ago, will try to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to successfully defend his title. Strange is the only player in more than a half-century to win back-to-back, a feat that neither Woods nor Jack Nicklaus managed.

And there is internal pressure on the USGA to get through a U.S. Open without an overload of complaints.

''If I was being completely honest, there is some of that,'' said Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director.

The greens were mostly dead, if they even had grass, when the U.S. Open was at Chambers Bay, though that was largely because of the weather. Still fresh is the fiasco from a year ago when Johnson's golf ball moved on the fifth green and there was debate whether he caused it. The USGA told him on the 12th tee it would wait until after the round for him to review it, meaning Johnson played the final seven holes not knowing the score. Neither did anyone else.

''Those things could have happened anywhere,'' Davis said. ''But they happened to us.''

Even so, this U.S. Open starts with a golf course that has never had the best players in the world, and doesn't look anything like a typical U.S. Open. The scorecard is 7,741 yards, making it the longest in U.S. Open history, though it likely will play shorter depending on how the course is set up each day. The fairways are wider than usual and there is no rough around the greens, much like Pinehurst No. 2., giving players options.

It's a major with which Nicklaus is not familiar.

''I think the USGA has gotten away from their identity with what they're doing,'' Nicklaus said. ''I haven't see the way the courses are set up. I know Chambers Bay was different. I have zero idea what Erin Hills is. I happen to like the U.S. Open the way it is."

''When you start changing around your setup, you're changing what you're asking a player to do,'' he added. ''I don't know if that's good or bad. It's just different.''

Davis, who took charge of U.S. Open setups starting with Winged Foot in 2006, says while the nature of the shots might be different depending on the golf course, the overall is exam is strong. He still strives to make it the toughest test in golf.

And he made no apologies for going to courses so new.

''What Erin Hills doesn't have is history yet,'' Davis said. ''But everybody had to start somewhere.''

This one starts with a little mystery that goes beyond Erin Hills. Going into the Masters, the biggest names in golf were winning - Spieth at Pebble Beach, Sergio Garcia in Dubai, Hideki Matsuyama in Phoenix, Rickie Fowler in Florida and then Johnson, who for the longest time looked as though he couldn't lose.

Johnson, now established at No. 1 in the world, remains the betting favorite for the U.S. Open. But he hasn't looked quite the same since he slipped in his socks down a wooden staircase and bruised his back so badly he had to withdraw from the Masters.

''I'm playing the best golf that I've ever played, and then I hurt myself and can't practice for a month,'' Johnson said. ''It definitely takes some momentum away.''

After missing the cut at the Memorial, mainly due to his putting, he spent two days at Erin Hills and liked what he saw. Johnson also is developing a reputation for being a U.S. Open player. Two years ago, he was 12 feet away from winning at Chambers Bay until a three-putt par to finish one shot behind Spieth. And then he won handily at Oakmont, even under the most bizarre circumstances of not knowing whether he would be penalized one shot when it was over.

''I've finished second and first,'' Johnson said, pausing to smile. ''Two-one-one would be nice.''

Getty Images

Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”

Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)

Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

Getty Images

McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

Getty Images

Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson. 

Getty Images

Ortiz takes Tour clubhouse lead in Bahamas

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 16, 2018, 2:19 am

Former Tour Player of the Year Carlos Ortiz shot a bogey-free, 4-under-par 68 Monday to take the clubhouse lead in The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay.

Four other players - Lee McCoy, Brandon Matthews, Sung Jae Im and Mark Anderson - were still on the course and tied with Ortiz at 6-under 210 when third-round play was suspended by darkness at 5:32 p.m. local time. It is scheduled to resume at 7:15 a.m. Tuesday.

Ortiz, a 26-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, is in search of his fourth Tour victory. In 2014, the former University of North Texas standout earned a three-win promotion on his way to being voted Tour Player of the Year.

McCoy, a 23-year-old from Dunedin, Fla., is looking to become the first player to earn medalist honors at Q-School and then win the opening event of the season.