ERIN, Wis. – The 15th hole at Erin Hills stands as testament to the brain cramps the golf course can cause players competing for championships. The short hole showed it can play as an itty-bitty par 4 and still be a beast.
U.S. Golf Association executive director Mike Davis relished watching how Erin Hills challenged the thinking of players, and the 15th typified that. Davis likes how the course will set up when the U.S. Open is played there in 2017. He called it a 'great championship test' and compared it with Pebble Beach, Shinnecock Hills and Oakmont.
At 370 yards on the scorecard, the USGA moved the tees at No. 15 up to 252 yards for Sunday’s U.S. Amateur final. It will be remembered as the turning point where Patrick Cantlay lost the championship to Kelly Kraft.
The hole was set up shorter than a par 3 was set up at the Atlanta Athletic Club during the PGA Championship. The 15th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club was 260 yards.
In Sunday’s morning round at Erin Hills, Cantlay knocked a 3-wood over the 15th green with his tee shot and back down into a gully filled with deep fescue. He had an impossible play and pitched back through the green. He might have made double bogey if he hadn’t conceded the hole with a 15-footer for bogey still to play.
In the afternoon round with the tees in the same place, Cantlay tried to make the smart play with a 1-up lead and laid up with an 8-iron. He inexplicably pulled his tee shot and laid up into a nasty fairway bunker.
“I pulled it 15 or 20 yards,” Cantlay said. “I was in between hybrid and 3-wood if I wanted to go for the green.”
Davis said he loved the flexibility Erin Hills offers, the ability to dramatically change holes and make players think over shots.
It worked at the U.S. Amateur.
“It’s really cool what they’re doing,” U.S. Walker Cup player Jordan Spieth said midway through the competition. “They really keep you guessing. You get to a tee box and pull out driver and go, `Oh, wait a minute, I’m not sure that’s the play.’ You never know what they’re going to have up their sleeve next when you come out.”
Spieth said he enjoyed the test.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here,” Spieth said. “After driving 45 minutes through corn fields and tobacco fields, here comes this monster golf course.”
Though at 7,760 yards the course was the longest in USGA championship history, length wasn’t the real challenge. The firmness of fairways and greens were with balls rolling out.
“This is like being at home,” said England’s Jack Senior, a semifinalist. “Where the Walker Cup is in two weeks' time, this is exactly like it. This is the exact style of course I play week in, week out, so this is a real home track for me.”
Davis said watching the U.S. Amateur, there will be tweaks for the U.S. Open in six years, mostly new tee boxes not designed to add length but to create more angles requiring even more thinking on certain tee shots.
Davis said the enormous size of the property, and the natural vistas for viewing, make it possible Erin Hills could be the first venue where U.S. Open ticket sales wouldn't have to be capped. Davis, however, said sales would be capped because of bus issues in transporting fans to the course.
“Think about a University of Michigan football game,” Davis said. “You could put that many people here and they could still move around fine. You wouldn’t even need bleachers.”