Dustin Johnson unknowingly grounded his club in a bunker on the 18th hole at Whistling Straits in 2010, costing him a chance to win the PGA Championship. The subtle bunkering on that links style course by the Sheboygan River sometimes was hard to distinguish.
There will be no such subtleties to the bunkering at Erin Hills, where the sand game of the best players of the world will be stressed during the 2017 U.S. Open that begins there Thursday. There will be plenty of talk about how length will be rewarded, because of the expansive fairways offered at the course that opened in 2006 and is situated 36 miles northwest of Milwaukee. But the critical shots will be made out of the dirt.
Listed at 7,800 yards and built on a former Wisconsin cattle farm, it includes four par 5s of more than 600 yards. Designed by Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Golf Digest architecture critic Ron Whitten, it has been called “a magical piece of property” by USGA president Mike Davis, and figures to play as long and tough as any U.S. Open ever, especially if the wind blows.
That is why bunker play will be magnified. The wind likely will blow the ball off the green and into the deep, nasty sand pits that surround many of the greens.
“Our feeling is: Bunkers are hazards. We don’t have a lot of water hazards on this course. This is the penalty,” Whitten once said.
Erin Hills is the sixth public course to host the U.S. Open — following Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Torrey Pines, Chambers Bay and Bethpage Black. The course has played host to the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship, which included Jordan Spieth.
It will be played at par 72, the first for a U.S. Open since 1992 at Pebble Beach. And though it is considered a links course, most of the approach shots will be aerial as opposed to the bump-and-run.
The USGA went to Chambers Bay in Washington two years ago, also a first-time host. A links layout, it was allowed to turn a crusty shade of brown for the tournament. The problem was the greens were a bumpy mess. That shouldn’t be a problem this weekend, though if the greens become slick as glass, the wind could cause the kind of problems that could have cost Johnson his U.S. Open win last year at Oakmont.
He played brilliantly down the stretch, winning by enough that a one-stroke penalty for his ball moving on the fifth green didn’t cost him the championship.
The weekend amateurs who have played Erin Hills expect to it to be firm, fast and full of challenges. The long fescue rough also will be hazardous. It will swallow most errant shots, leaving players with little option but to find the nearest fairway.
“It’s very difficult,” said Dan Deneberg of Montville, N.J., who played the course during a golf junket two years ago. “You have to be very precise with your drives and stay out of the fescue. Then you have to deal with the bunkers.”
Erin Hills, like Chambers Bay, is a break from the traditional U.S. Open courses. The unknown adds an element of intrigue.
“Everyone is new to the golf course,” said Jason Day of Australia. “It levels the playing field when stuff like that happens. At the U.S. Open you want to get yourself in the fairways, get your birdies when you can and always try to stay positive and never think you’re out of it. That’s kind of the keys that you have to have going into it. The emotional control that you have out there, the attitude that you bring into the tournament is key.”