ERIN, Wis. – It’s been seven years since the PGA Tour shuttered the Greater Milwaukee Open, ending a 42-year run for Wisconsin’s lone annual Tour event.
And while they’re separated by only a 40-minute drive over winding, two-lane roads through some sprawling farmland, you’d have a tough time finding two more disparate golf courses than Brown Deer Park and Erin Hills. The former was a track where you could leave driver in the car, while the latter is taking major championship golf to unprecedented lengths this week.
But if you squinted a little while scanning the opening-round leaderboard at the U.S. Open, it would have been easy to wonder if you’d been transported across town to the course where Corey Pavin and Loren Roberts once reigned supreme.
A new venue has led to a decidedly new experience at the season’s second major. Specifically, red numbers – lots of them. A record 44 players broke par in the opening round, including six scores of 67 or better led by Rickie Fowler’s 7-under effort that tied the tournament’s opening-round scoring record in relation to par.
“You don’t get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free,” Fowler said.
The afternoon wave was highlighted by Adam Hadwin reeling off six straight birdies en route to a 4-under 68, becoming the third player to do so in this event and first since Andy Dillard in 1992.
“Certainly not used to it. Not certainly like this,” Hadwin said. “But the greens were very receptive. You’re spinning wedge shots, you could hold a mid-iron. So if you kept it in the fairway, you had some scoring opportunities.”
The tried-and-true mindset that par is your friend went out the window Thursday amid a gentle breeze and under sunny skies, as the leaderboard became slathered with more red paint than the end zone at nearby Camp Randall Stadium.
Tournament officials always prefer to offer the most demanding test during the final round, and by default that means that the course can’t be pushed to its limit in Round 1. Players are easing their way into things this week, just as they did two years ago at Chambers Bay, another unconventional venue, where 5 under led after both the first and last rounds. The path will inevitably grow more arduous as the week progresses.
“We’re all interested to see where the pin positions are going to be tomorrow, and if there’s a knee-jerk reaction,” said Paul Casey. “It’s pretty benign and receptive, but it’s not going to last. If the sun shines and the wind blows, it’s going to dry out. It will be treacherous.”
The USGA stretched Erin Hills to a whopping 7,845 yards in the opening round, but they could have tacked on another 500 yards to that total without slowing down much of the field. The firm and fast conditions achieved at Pinehurst and Chambers Bay proved elusive last year at Oakmont, and Mother Nature has again failed to cooperate this week.
The surrounding area has been deluged recently, and the course took on a couple more inches of rain once tournament week began. More precipitation is expected over the next 48 hours. To put it simply, soft conditions mean green lights for elite players – even on the longest of courses.
“I made a birdie out of the first cut of rough today. This is never going to happen again, so might as well enjoy it,” said Brandt Snedeker. “The greens are the best I’ve seen in a long time. Rolling the perfect speed. I thought it was very, very fair. Almost more so than I was expecting for a U.S. Open.”
Granted, not everyone had their way with Erin Hills in the opener. Fowler and Sergio Garcia (70) were the only players ranked inside the top 10 who broke par, as Nos. 1-6 were a cumulative 21 over. Defending champ Dustin Johnson struggled to a 75, while Rory McIlroy (78) and Jason Day (79) combined to shoot 13 over after finding nearly every unpleasant nook and cranny this 650-acre property has to offer.
“You cannot play this golf course if you’re not in position off the tee, and I wasn’t in position,” McIlroy said. “Obviously, I paid the price for it today.”
The scoring will surely regress in the coming days despite the rain on the horizon, and the forecast calls for cool and breezy conditions for the final round that should go a long way toward identifying a worthy winner. But the decision to bring a national championship to Erin Hills seven years ago broke a mold, and so too did the low scoring the opening round produced.
The old GMO may still be dead, but at least for one day it didn’t seem quite so far away.