ERIN, Wis. – However you slice it, Erin Hills is a sprawling ballpark. Think the Coors Field of golf, with four par 5s that measure over 600 yards, four par 4s over 500 yards and a total tab that stretches 23,400 feet from the back tees.
Intimidating, interminable, immense, whatever qualifier you choose seems to fit this year’s Midwest stopover, and the seemingly impromptu yard work by the maintenance staff on Tuesday only crystalized the notion that the USGA is already in damage control mode.
Officials said trimming portions of Erin Hill’s fescue wasn’t a byproduct of player complaints. Instead it was, essentially, a move to make the layout more playable less than 48 hours before the first tee shot is hit.
But for all the tales of woe and the increasingly clever chatter on social media, it won’t be the “miscue with the fescue” that will ultimately define this championship or any other agronomic issue (see Bay, Chambers 2015).
It’s all a shell game, sleight of hand stuff to draw the players’ attention. If the field is worried about the length of the fescue on the fourth hole they aren’t paying attention to the man behind the curtain.
The same could be said of those ridiculous numbers on the Erin Hills scorecard.
One caddie explained this week that it took him more than 30,000 steps to round Erin Hills during a practice round, but ultimately it won’t be the physical toll players will need to overcome so much as it will be the championship’s unique mental challenges.
The consensus is the layout won’t play nearly as long as advertised thanks to rolling hills and fairways that run as fast as you typical green at a municipal track; but for those sitting around thinking about the next 72 holes it certainly leaves an impression.
“It's always a physical test. It's a big golf course. It's a tough one to walk. The rough is always thick. You're just putting more effort into each round. But then most of all it tests the mental game more than any other place in golf,” Jordan Spieth said. “If you came for a stress-free tournament you didn't come to the right place.”
You could argue that some in the 156-player field have already fallen victim to these mind games, but then acres of swaying fescue can do that to even the world’s best players.
Asked on Tuesday his reaction to the USGA’s decision to tidy up some of the deep stuff, Rory McIlroy made no attempt to hide his displeasure.
“We have 60 yards from rough line to rough line. You've got 156 of the best players in the world here, if we can't hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home,” McIlroy said.
Nothing brings out tough love like a U.S. Open.
While the Northern Irishman’s take may be a little harsh for some, it’s also a shining example of the mental impact of playing a U.S. Open. You don’t have to hit into the fescue to be impacted by the stuff, you just need to know it’s there.
The U.S. Open is as much a mind game as it is marathon. Look no further than the par-3 ninth, the shortest hole on the course at 135 yards, to prove the point. It should be no more than a wedge for most in the field, but the USGA blocked off seven different tee boxes they could use on the hole on any given day.
It’s all part of the competitive curveball that makes up the U.S. Open mystique, a test of a player’s mental ability every bit as a much as their mettle. It’s by design.
“I talked to Jack Nicklaus quite a few times about this, but to hear Jack talk about coming to a U.S. Open, he loved it, absolutely loved it when players would be chirping about things he'd say that player is done, that player is done, and in most cases he was right,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s chief executive officer. “You have to come into this test of golf, whether it's this week or the Women's Open or the U.S. Girls Junior, you've got to come in with a certain mindset. And you know we're going to test you.”
The USGA may have started to gravitate away from the notion that the U.S. Open is “the game’s toughest test,” to the less intimidating tagline of being “the game’s ultimate test,” but a mental test by any other name is still a mental test.
Davis & Co. have become experts at pushing the envelope and beyond. Look no further than the 2015 edition as an example of the latter when Chambers Bay’s greens ventured too close to the edge, and the field spent the week putting across and around patches of dirt.
There are no immediate indications the USGA is dancing too close to the sun this week. In fact, Tuesday’s grooming of the rough is an example of the association’s desire to err on the side of caution, but it will do nothing to change the mental dynamic that is such an overriding, if not rarely addressed, aspect of this championship.
“Everyone has a breaking point and a limit or threshold that they'll actually reach,” Jason Day figured this week. “They'll go, 'OK, do I actually want to push it even more or do I have enough in the tank?'
“Those moments are the moments when you learn the most about yourself, whether you can actually push more than you've ever pushed before in your life.”
Those are the moments that make the U.S. Open unique among the game’s Grand Slam stops – a 72-hole SAT without equal. Everything else – the ridiculous length of the course or acres of fescue waiting to be turned to hay – is simply a distraction, a way to identify not only this week’s best player, but the mentally strongest as well.