ERIN, Wis. – Early Monday at Erin Hills, Wesley Bryan joined Jon Rahm for a practice round. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Spaniard marched back to the ridiculously long course’s back tees.
“We played it all the way back and it’s freakin’ long, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about that,” Bryan said.
At 7,741 yards, Erin Hills is what everybody thought it was – a sprawling layout that, depending on how the course is set up, will be the longest in championship history. But then it will also be the first course played as a par 72 to host the U.S. Open since Pebble Beach in 1992, which if first impressions are relevant is all part of the dichotomy of the 117th edition.
On one hand, Erin Hills will play more than 1,000 yards longer than The Olympic Club (6,714 yards) did when it hosted the 1987 championship, but if player feedback on Monday afternoon was any indication those kinds of comparisons are somewhat misleading.
“The fairways are a little wider than typical U.S. Opens, but we’re saying that now. Thursday morning we won’t be saying the same thing,” Brandt Snedeker predicted. “And that being said, it’s probably the most penal rough I’ve seen. If you get outside a fairway here you are not going to find [your golf ball].
“It will be an interesting combo, where driving accuracy is maybe less important to some but the foul ball will be penalized more.”
Keeping with recent history, the USGA will use a version of graduated rough that’s about four paces off the fairway before reaching the fescue, which by all accounts is where good rounds will go to die.
“That rough is un-findable in some places, un-hittable in many places. If you do try to hit out of there it’s going to create some massive, massive numbers,” Snedeker said.
Although some of the landing areas are nearly 50 yards wide, the penalty for an extremely errant tee shot will be severe, so much so, the notion that Erin Hills is little more than a bomber’s paradise may not be entirely correct.
During his practice round with Rahm on Monday, for example, Byran – who made a scouting trip to Erin Hills after the Dean & DeLuca Invitational last month – noticed that although the Spaniard enjoyed an advantage off the tee it was somewhat mitigated by both the looming rough and green complexes that encourage the use of slopes and mounds to access certain hole locations.
“There’s opportunities to get the ball, not necessarily close to the hole, but you can move it around some slopes, but it’s definitely an advantage hitting 8- or 7-iron into these greens where I’m going to be having a 4- and 5-iron at times,” Bryan said. “I think it’s more important to miss on the right side of the green than to bomb it off the tee.”
To prove the point, when asked how he was preparing to play from Erin Hills’ deep stuff, Rahm’s response was equal parts inspiring and insightful.
“I didn't step in it. I'm like there's no need to injure my wrist this week before I tee off,” he said. “It really looks very penalizing. Unless you get extremely lucky where you might be able to move it 120 yards, it looks like a 30-yard chip out to the fairway. . . . It wouldn't surprise me if someone loses a ball and has to take an unplayable.”
Erin Hills appears to be more than simply the sum of its shin-high fescue or the yardage on the card. Asked which holes could be pivotal this week, most players and caddies referenced the par-4 second, the shortest par 4 on the course that can play between 338 and 361 yards, and the par-3 ninth, which is dramatically downhill and just 135 yards.
At the second hole players will face a “blind” tee shot to a ridge followed by an approach to a narrow green with dramatic run-off areas to the left and behind the putting surface. The ninth could be even more challenging to a green that tilts from front to back.
But then the U.S. Open is always billed as the toughest test in golf whether it’s played at a first-time venue or one of the more historic stops. Winning the U.S. Open is never easy, and this year’s event will be no different.
“Golf at the U.S. Open has always been a bit harder than at The Open or any of the other ones,” Henrik Stenson said. “We know Augusta has got the challenges, and The Open, you've got the weather. The U.S. Open you normally play on golf courses that are tricked up just to the limits, sometimes over the limits and sometimes just underneath. So it's certainly a tiring week. But it's all worth it if you stand there with the trophy on Sunday.”