If every major is defined to varying degrees by the venue, at least until the first meaningful golf shot is struck on Thursday, the 117th U.S. Open is very much an enigma, a little-known Grand Slam guest defined by speculation and second-hand accounts as much as by practical experience and history.
The sprawling layout deep in the heart of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine was built for a national championship, and when the golf world descends on the course for next week’s U.S. Open they will find a worthy test.
At least that’s what officials contend, but then no one knows for sure.
The U.S. Open will be the first significant professional event played at Erin Hills, and what precious little institutional knowledge exists about the behemoth paints an interesting, if incomplete, picture.
It’s been nearly five years since Steve Stricker, who qualified for the U.S. Open on Monday, played Erin Hills but first impressions are often the most lasting and accurate.
“They used to have a tournament [from the tips], I never played in the tournament, but I wanted to play it all the way from the back,” Stricker remembered. “I played nine holes and that was it. This was four or five years ago when I was younger. I hit some sort of utility club or fairway wood into four of the nine holes I played.”
From the “tips,” Erin Hills is listed at 7,800 yards on the official scorecard, including four par 5s of over 600 yards, but it can be played even longer according to various sources.
During the 2011 U.S. Amateur, Erin Hills played to 7,760 yards. While those numbers have become part of the layout’s legend, for the few who have actually played the course in a tournament those yardages can be misleading.
“It's hard and fast and it's long,” said Kelly Kraft, who won that ’11 Amateur. “I tell people that on paper it looks a lot harder than it really is. You can look at it on paper and say, ‘Man, this thing is 7,900, 8,000 yards.’ When do you ever play a golf course that is that long? But not every day you play one that is so firm like that and the ball can roll forever.”
By this time next week, the field will have a much more detailed picture of Erin Hills, and to be fair the last three first-time men’s major venues have been unqualified successes – from Tiger Woods’ victory at the ’08 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to Rory McIlroy at the ’12 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, and Jordan Spieth at the ’15 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay. The key for Spieth and McIlroy was how quickly they learned the new layouts.
Spieth arrived at the ’15 Open on the Saturday before the championship and focused on the speed of the greens and his lag putting.
“I remember it being my best putting practice prior to a tournament I've ever had as far as getting the speed down,” Spieth said. “I had hit so many putts from the Saturday before until Wednesday evening that I already knew what was going to be there. I knew you were going to hit some good putts that were going to miss.
“That was a game changer for most of the week for me.”
It’s hardly a surprise that Spieth – who lost in the semifinals of the ’11 Amateur at Erin Hills – plans to adhere to the same blueprint for next week’s U.S. Open, arriving this weekend and focusing on the speed of Erin Hills’ greens.
Brandt Snedeker said he will follow a similar routine, arriving in Wisconsin this weekend, but explained that first-time major venues create a unique set of challenges beyond the normal issues of deep rough and fast greens.
“You have to approach them differently on the practice side of it. At a typical major, you may only play one practice round, but when you’re playing a new venue you’re going to want to play at least two full practice rounds,” Snedeker said.
Those five-plus-hour practice rounds take a toll. Snedeker calls them “energy vampires,” a reality that forces a player to shift his normal pre-tournament routine to the more immediate need for information.
“There is a lot more energy spent on the golf course than on your golf swing,” said Snedeker, who added he plans to play practice rounds with multiple players in order to see multiple views of the course.
It’s this balance that prompts some players to make separate scouting trips to Erin Hills. Brian Harman visited the layout last weekend, and Paul Casey made the trip on May 29. Even McIlroy, who has been recovering from a rib injury since The Players, was scheduled to get a look at the course this week with a practice round alongside one of the layout’s architects, Dana Fry.
“Golf course set-ups can be very different from the weeks leading up to and the week of [a championship],” Casey said. “But at least if I go and I see the layout you know the routing. You know what you may be facing and you eliminate that shock of getting there Monday and seeing it for the first time.
“There are probably going to be a few guys who don’t get over that shock by Thursday, and you don’t want to be one of those guys.”
Whatever helps players get over that initial shock – it is a 7,800-yard golf course, after all – while maintaining as much energy as possible will be crucial, but Stricker, a Wisconsin native, offered what may be the most encouraging piece of advice.
“You have to crash course, for sure. Guys will figure it out in a relatively short period of time. I don’t think there’s anything tricky about it,” he said. “You go around a couple of times and you’ll have a pretty good idea what to do.”