Erin Hills stirs up a mountain of debate

By Randall MellJune 19, 2017, 10:00 pm

ERIN, Wis. – Erin Hills won the hearts of a lot of major championship winners this week, but they didn’t all love it as a U.S. Open test.

“It was fair,” said Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion. “I love Erin Hills, and it was a fun week to be a part of, but it is definitely not a U.S. Open in any way.”

Simpson said Erin Hills reminded him more of a soft British Open course.

“When I think of U.S. Opens, I think of tight fairways, tree-lined fairways with rough and firm greens,” Simpson said. “This week, we had wide fairways, no trees and soft greens.”

Simpson understands exactly why Erin Hills played soft as an inland links-like design and why it was set up the way it was. He understands why there were record low scores, especially in the first three rounds, when rain softened the course and the winds laid down. He understands the USGA knew toughening the course too much could have led to disaster if the winds kicked up quickly like they did in Sunday’s final round.

“I think they did a great job with what they had,” Simpson said. “It’s just a different style golf course than what we are used to having.”

Keegan Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner, wasn’t able to break par in any round and tied for 60th, but he loved the test Erin Hills offered.

It just didn’t remind him of a U.S. Open.

“It’s more like a PGA Championship style course, but I think it’s fantastic,” Bradley said.

“I think, sometimes, U.S. Opens border on unfair. The biggest misconception this week is that this course is so easy. I looked at the stroke averages of the last five U.S. Opens, and it is right there.”

But what about all the scoring records broken at Erin Hills?

Brooks Koepka (-16) equaled Rory McIlroy’s 72-hole U.S. Open scoring record in relation to par.

Justin Thomas broke the U.S. Open single-round scoring record in relation to par with his 9-under-par 63 on Saturday.

Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Chez Reavie equaled records shooting 7-under 65s in the first and second rounds.

Adam Hadwin equaled a U.S. Open record with six consecutive birdies in the first round.

By Sunday’s end, more players (31) finished under par for 72 holes than any U.S. Open in history.

While rain and lighter winds were factors in scoring, Bradley says there was something else, too.

“There are four par 5s here, and it’s a par 72,” Bradley said.

It was the first U.S. Open played to a par 72 in 25 years.

So many USGA setups in the past changed the nature of a golf course, turning natural par 5s into long par 4s. Not at Erin Hills. So, there were more birdie chances there.

“If you had weather like this the first three days, which I’m sure they wish they had, everyone would be closer to par,” Bradley said.

Bradley thought the scoring onslaught made for a more compelling championship.

“I don’t see the problem with it,” Bradley said. “I watched [Saturday] when I was done, and it was way more fun to watch than other ones in the past. I think it’s great. I don’t think it matters what the scores are, I really don’t. ... It’s about the players and the pressure.”

Ernie Els, the two-time U.S. Open winner who may have played this championship for the final time on Sunday, likes the way it is evolving from the “toughest test” in golf to the “ultimate test.”

Els didn’t mind seeing scoring records fall, either.

“If it would have been like this all week, 2-under par would have won,” Els said of Sunday’s heavy winds. “This is like a links. When there’s no wind on a links course, we kill a links course.”

Els said he likes the way USGA executive director Mike Davis’ setup philosophy more thoroughly tests shot making, including chipping around the greens, instead of asking players to chop out of rough after every missed shot.

“I hope we come back here. They deserve another U.S. Open," Els said.

“All the scoring records that fell this week, maybe that’s a sign of the times. Come on, how much can you try to protect a golf course? So you get weather that’s good, greens in perfect condition and wide fairways, so what?

“For so long, they’ve been protecting par, and they have made it ridiculous.

“This was a playable golf course. We got lucky with the weather for three days, but today was a good test. Could you imagine if it was really firm today? We wouldn’t be playing golf. It’s a fair setup, and it got a little bit easy because there was no wind.”

Of course, not everybody liked the low scoring. While more than one player questioned some hole locations in Sunday’s winds, none of the more than dozen players interviewed for this story thought the USGA got overly severe with its setup.

“Nothing was ridiculous,” Kevin Na said.

That’s notable because Na got so much attention early in the week, when he demonstrated on Instagram just how penal the fescue was, which may or may not have led the USGA to carve it back just 48 hours before the competition began.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the USGA, I get that,” Na said. “Overall, they did OK.”

That ranks as high praise compared to player evaluations of the recent past, especially at Chambers Bay two years ago.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Chambers Bay, but this was better than Chambers Bay was as a new venue,” Els said.

Count Jim Furyk among players who didn’t think Erin Hills felt like a traditional U.S. Open test.

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Furyk prefers traditional setups on the game’s more traditional venues.

“If you came here thinking U.S. Open, you had to adjust your style and game,” Furyk said.

This year marked the second time in three years that the USGA has chosen to play on a first-time venue. Chambers Bay and Erin Hills are both public-access courses with more wide-open, modern designs.

Furyk believes criticism the USGA has faced over setups has much to do with the challenges modern design offers modern players.


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“Erin Hills is so severe by design, had this course played firm and fast, it would have put extreme stress on the USGA for their setup,” Furyk said. “I think you see that in a lot of modern courses today. The severity of the layout really makes it difficult on the setup team. You want to make it difficult, you want to make it tough, but because of the severity, it’s so easy to go overboard.”

So erring on the side of caution can make a course seem too easy in benign conditions.

Count Martin Kaymer among the major champions who didn’t think Erin Hills was set up tough enough as a U.S. Open test. Kaymer won this championship three years ago.

Kaymer believes part of the USGA’s challenge is finding setups that will test the best players in the world no matter the weather conditions.

“It would have been great this week with a sub-air system making these greens firmer,” Kaymer said.

Kaymer believes scoring does matter in a major championship test.

“If you shoot 9 under like Justin Thomas did, you ask, `Are the players that good? Or is the golf course too easy?’” Kaymer said. “I guess it’s a combination.”

Kaymer won at Pinehurst with a nontraditional setup, with no rough but sandy, wispy natural areas waiting for players who missed fairways.

“It doesn’t matter if a course is fast and firm or if it is soft with thick rough, it should be very, very tough,” Kaymer said. “I’m a big fan of having the best tournaments in the world being very, very tough, not unplayable, but where level par should give you a chance in the end.”

Kaymer said any style golf course should be set up “in the toughest way for us” in a major championship.

“I feel like you need to shoot under par every single week in tournaments these days,” Kaymer said. “Yes, I get it. It’s fun for spectators, but it’s now all about hitting it long and making putts. I don’t think you get penalized too much for missing fairways.”

Kaymer understands why the fairways were wider at Erin Hills, but he believes they were too wide.

“If the fairways were a little tighter, it would have been an amazing championship,” Kaymer said.

Stewart Cink loved Erin Hills, and he conceded he got away with some errant drives this week that probably should have been punished more, but he gave a thumbs up to the thinking behind the overall setup.

“The contours are so severe in the fairways here,” said Cink, who won The Open in 2009. “They had no choice but to make the fairways really wide.

“So if it gets wet like it did this week, and it gets soft, the fairways are going to play too generously for a U.S. Open, too wide, a little too forgiving.”

Cink believes a severe setup plan at Erin Hills could have caused serious problems, with a huge downside if the course was too firm and fast when the usual heavy winds arrived.

“It would have been a bloodbath,” Cink said.

Cink believed Erin Hills was a major test even with the setup erring on the side of caution.

“This is a fantastic course,” Cink said. “It definitely tests your approach shot planning more than your tee ball planning.

“The green complexes were all very unique and interesting. I think it’s a major championship test, a major championship venue. I think they should probably keep this in the major championship rotation.

“It was really fun to play here. I don’t care what the scores are. The USGA probably doesn’t like that many red numbers, but it doesn’t matter. The course here was a really fine test.”

Hadwin would have loved to have claimed his first major at Erin Hills. Watching all the scoring records fall didn’t bother the man who shot 59 earlier this year, because Hadwin is proving he can play tough tests as well as he can play birdie fests.

Hadwin took note of all the low scores this week, but he took note of the high ones, too. World No. 1 Dustin Johnson opened the championship with a 75, No. 2 Rory McIlroy with a 78 and No. 3 Jason Day with a 79. They all missed the cut.

Hadwin believes the wide range in scores spoke well for the kind of test Erin Hills offered.

“I absolutely loved the course,” said Hadwin, who won the Valspar Championship on the tough Innisbrook Copperhead course in March. “To me, what makes a great golf course is you can shoot 66 and you can shoot 78 just as easily. I love that about Muirfield Village as well. If you are on, you can make birdies. If you are off, it’s going to be extremely difficult.

“I think what people saw the first three days at Erin Hills is not indicative of what this golf course can be like. I think today is more what Erin Hills is like.”

The scoring average in Sunday’s heavier winds was 73.92, almost two strokes higher than on Saturday, when Thomas shot his record-setting 9-under 63.

“I think some people want to see flat-out carnage at U.S. Opens,” Hadwin said. “I saw some tweets saying it didn’t feel like a U.S. Open because of the names on the leaderboard. That does a huge disservice to the guys here and how they are playing. Just because some of the big names aren’t here on the weekend doesn’t mean it’s not a great championship. I think the players at the top of the leaderboard are there for a reason.”

It might surprise folks who saw Na’s Instagram depiction of Erin Hills’ penal fescue early in the week, but Na agrees with Kaymer. He believes the fairways should have been narrowed more this week, maybe by just 10 more yards. Notably, he doesn’t believe the fescue should have been brought in closer to the fairways. He believes the traditional rough serving as buffer should have been brought in closer.

Mostly, Na believes the USGA’s real challenges can be blamed on how players and equipment have changed.

“The thing is, players are getting so much better,” Na said. “Guys are hitting it 340 yards. Everyone is so much stronger. And technologically, the ball’s so much better. The ball is going too far, and guys are only going to hit it farther.”

Jordan Spieth, who won the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, called Erin Hills “an awesome golf course” and would like to see the championship return here. He summed up the debate the week’s low scoring created this way:

“I think anytime you've seen U.S. Open golf venues work back towards even par, there are complaints. Now, all of a sudden, they make it tough and fair, and people are 12 under, and people are complaining they're 12 under, so like let's pick one side or the other here. I think it's exciting.”

If Park is nervous, she sure doesn't show it

By Randall MellNovember 17, 2017, 11:24 pm

NAPLES, Fla. – Sung Hyun Park says she can feel her heart pounding every time she steps to the first tee.

She says she always gets nervous starting a round.

You don’t believe it, though.

She looks like she would be comfortable directing a sky full of Boeing 737s as an air traffic controller at Incheon International Airport . . .

Or talking people off the ledges of skyscrapers . . .

Or disarming ticking bombs . . .

“In terms of golf, I always get nervous,” she insists.

Everything about Park was at odds with that admission Friday, after she took control halfway through the CME Group Tour Championship.

Her Korean nickname is “Dan Gong,” which means “Shut up and attack.” Now that sounds right. That’s what she looks like she is doing, trying to run roughshod through the Tour Championship in a historic sweep of all the LPGA’s most important awards and honors.

Park got just one look at Tiburon Golf Club before this championship began, playing in Wednesday’s pro-am. Then she marched out Thursday and shot 67, then came out Friday and shot 65.

At 12 under overall, Park has a three-shot lead on Caroline Masson and Sarah Jane Smith.

She is six shots up on Lexi Thompson, who leads the CME Globe point standings in the race for the $1 million jackpot.

She is 11 shots up on world No. 1 Shanshan Feng.

And 11 shots up on So Yeon Ryu, who leads the Rolex Player of the Year point standings.


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There’s a long way to go, but Park is in position to make an epic sweep, to win the Tour Championship, that CME Globe jackpot, the Rolex Player of the Year Award, the Rolex Rookie of the Year Award, the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, the LPGA money-winning title and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Nobody’s ever dominated a weekend like that in women’s golf.

It’s all there for the taking now, if Park can keep this going.

Park has another nickname back in South Korea. Her fans call her “Namdalla.” That means “I am different.” She’ll prove that if she owns this weekend.

Park, 24, isn’t assuming anything. She’s humbly aware how much talent is flooding the LPGA, how the tour’s depth was underscored in a year where five different players have reigned as world No. 1, five different players won majors and 22 different winners stepped forward in 32 events.

“I don’t think it’s quite that far a lead,” Park said of her three-shot advantage. “Two, three shots can change at any moment.”

About those nerves that Park insists plague her, even Hall of Famer Judy Rankin can’t see it.

Not when Park unsheathes a driver on a tee box.

“She’s the most fearless driver of the ball out here,” Rankin said. “I would put Lexi a close second and everybody else a distant third. She hits drivers on holes where you shouldn’t, and she hits it long and she just throws it right down there between hazard stakes that are 10 yards apart, like it’s nothing. Now, that’s a little hyperbole, but she will hit driver almost everywhere.”

David Jones, Park’s caddie, will attest to that. He was on Park’s bag when she won the U.S. Women’s Open in July and won the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open in August.

“She reaches for driver a lot because she is a good driver,” Jones said. “She isn’t reckless. She’s as accurate with a driver as she is a 3-wood.”

Park and Thompson played together in the first round. Park is eighth on tour in driving distance, averaging 270 yards per drive, and Thompson is third, averaging 274.

Thompson loves to hit driver, too, but . . . 

“Lexi hit a lot of 3-woods compared to us when we played together yesterday,” Jones said.

Jones doesn’t find himself talking Park out of hitting driver much.

“It’s really simple,” Jones said. “When you hit driver as straight as she does, why mess around?”

Count Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a student of the swing, among admirers of Park’s abilities.

“No other swing in the game comes close to her technical perfection and elegance in my opinion,” Chamblee tweeted Friday.

Come Sunday, Park hopes to complete a perfect sweep of the LPGA’s most important awards.

National champion Sooners meet with Trump in D.C.

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 17, 2017, 11:10 pm

The national champion Oklahoma men's golf team visited Washington D.C. on Frday and met with President Donald Trump.

Oklahoma topped Oregon, 3 1/2 to 1 1/2, in last year's national final at Rich Harvest Farms to win their second national championship and first since 1989.

These pictures from the team's trip to Washington popped up on social media late Friday afternoon:

Rookie Cook (66-62) credits prior Tour experience

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2017, 10:36 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook is a rookie only on paper. At least, that’s the way he’s played since joining the circuit this season.

This week’s RSM Classic is Cook’s fourth start on Tour, and rounds of 66-62 secured his fourth made cut of the young season. More importantly, his 14-under total moved him into the lead at Sea Island Resort.

“I really think that a couple years ago, the experience that I have had, I think I've played maybe 10 events, nine events before this season,” Cook said. “Being in contention a few times and making cuts, having my card has really prepared me for this.”


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Cook has been perfect this week at the RSM Classic and moved into contention with four consecutive birdies starting at No. 13 (he began his round on the 10th hole of the Seaside course). A 6-footer for birdie at the last moved him one stroke clear of Brian Gay.

In fact, Cook hasn’t come close to making a bogey this week thanks to an equally flawless ball-striking round that moved him to first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.

If Cook has played like a veteran this week, a portion of that credit goes to long-time Tour caddie Kip Henley, who began working for Cook during this year’s Web.com Tour finals.

“He’s got a great golf brain,” Henley said. “That’s the most flawless round of golf I’ve ever seen.”

Cook fires 62 for one-shot lead at RSM Classic

By Associated PressNovember 17, 2017, 10:26 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook made a 6-foot birdie putt on his final hole for an 8-under 62 and a one-shot lead going into the weekend at the RSM Classic.

Cook has gone 36 holes without a bogey on the Plantation and Seaside courses at Sea Island Golf Club. He played Seaside - the site of the final two rounds in the last PGA Tour event of the calendar year - on Friday and ran off four straight birdies on his opening nine holes.

''We've just been able to it hit the ball really well,'' Cook said. ''Speed on greens has been really good and getting up-and-down has been great. I've been able to hit it pretty close to the hole to make some pretty stress-free putts. But the couple putts that I have had of some length for par, I've been able to roll them in. Everything's going well.''

The 26-year-old former Arkansas player was at 14-under 128 and had a one-stroke lead over Brian Gay, who shot 64 on Seaside. No one else was closer than five shots going into the final two rounds.

The 45-year-old Gay won the last of his four PGA Tour titles in 2013.


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''I've hit a lot of greens and fairways,'' Gay said. ''I've hit the ball, kept it in front of me. There's a lot of trouble out here, especially with the wind blowing, so I haven't had to make too many saves the first couple days and I putted well.''

Cook has made the weekend cuts in all four of his starts this season. He earned his PGA Tour card through the Web.com Tour, and has hired Gay's former caddie, Kip Henley.

''With him being out here so long, he knows everybody, so it's not like I'm completely the new kid on the block,'' Cook said. ''He's introduced me to a lot of people, so it's just making me feel comfortable out here. He knows his way around these golf courses. We're working really well together.''

First-round leader Chris Kirk followed his opening 63 on the Plantation with a 70 on the Seaside to drop into a tie for third at 9 under with C.T. Pan (65) and Vaughn Taylor (66).

Brandt Snedeker is looking strong in his first start in some five months because of a sternum injury. Snedeker shot a 67 on the Plantation course and was six shots back at 8 under.

''I was hitting the ball really well coming down here,'' Snedeker said. ''I was anxious to see how I would hold up under pressure. I haven't played a tournament in five months, so it's held up better than I thought it would. Ball-striking's been really good, mental capacity's been unbelievable.

''I think being so fresh, excited to be out there and thinking clearly. My short game, which has always been a strength of mine, I didn't know how sharp it was going to be. It's been really good so far.''