The US Open is here: Is Erin Hills ready?
Posted June 13
Major championship golf is steeped in tradition. From the “Road Hole” to “Amen Corner,” the game’s legends have been built across more than a century and a half over courses dating back before the turn of the century.
The 19th century.
The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, based at Muirfield in Gullane, Scotland, was formed in 1795 and is part of a limited number of historic layouts used by the Open Championship. The event will be contested for the 146th time this summer at England’s Royal Birkdale in Merseyside. The PGA Championship was first played in 1916. Even the Masters, the “baby” of the bunch, is 83 years old.
But, this week, the 117th U.S. Open is an outlier.
Yes, our national championship, first played in 1890 at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, will have no tradition at all. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
Erin Hills in southeastern Wisconsin, not far from Milwaukee, will host the U.S. Open without ever having hosted a professional golf tournament. If it sounds like you’ve heard that before, you’re right. Two years ago, Chambers Bay in Washington also hosted a major before ever having staged a pro tournament.
And, in golf parlance, it turned out to be a double bogey.
From uneven course conditions to the funked up layout to the poor vantage points for spectators AND television coverage — Fox’s first U.S. Open telecast, mind you — Chambers Bay wasn’t universally well-received. Even the eventual champion, Jordan Spieth, had his issues with the course set up, and the greens were something short of major championship quality.
The real talking point isn’t whether Erin Hills — or Chambers Bay before it — is a great golf course, I’m sure it’s wonderful to play, diabolical and challenging at nearly 8,000 yards, the longest in U.S. Open history. But is it worthy of hosting a major championship? What is it’s history?
Erin Hills, which opened in 2006, has no history. Sure, it was home to the 2011 U.S. Amateur, won by current tour pro Kelly Kraft, but that's history like your bowl of Raisin Bran and morning coffee.
Same with Chambers Bay, which was founded in 2007, and hosted the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the Open five years later. Why?
I understand starting new traditions. I get the United States Golf Association, which runs this week’s tournament as well as more than a dozen other “major” events throughout the calendar, wanting to try to expand their footprint. But, that was why they sunk so much time and money into the restoration of the Black Course at New York’s Bethpage State Park. Even though it had never been used for something as grand as a U.S. Open, the Black Course had long been known to golfers in the New York area as one of the most ferocious challenges in the region. Oh, and it was built in 1936 by legendary course architect, A.W Tillinghast, whose additional works include famed tracks at Winged Foot, Baltusrol and Inverness, which have staged a combined 37 major tournaments.
Bethpage was the site of the 2002 Open, won by Tiger Woods, and was used again seven years later when Lucas Glover held off — among others — Phil Mickelson and David Duval to win a rain-soaked affair that saw a Monday finish.
Pinehurst No. 2 is another example of a historic and classic American golf course starting a new tradition.
Finished in 1907, the Donald Ross design hosted the 1936 PGA Championship and the 1951 Ryder Cup before exiting major championship golf until the 1999 U.S. Open. Even before Payne Stewart’s famous putt fell on the 72nd green, giving him his third major title, the USGA decided that the event was such a success that they agreed to return to the Sandhills six years later.
Not since Massachusetts’ Myopia Hunt Club was used four times between 1898 and 1908 has the U.S. Open returned so quickly. Now, the Number 2 course, since restored by 2-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and his partner Bill Coore, is considered the east coast version of Pebble Beach.
It is scheduled to host it’s fourth Open in 2024. Even Pebble is a relatively new tradition for the USGA. They first brought the Open to the Monterrey Peninsula in 1972 and will return two summers from now for the 6th time, far short of the nine held at Oakmont in suburban Pittsburgh, last year’s location.
For decades, the U.S. Open has been synonymous with history, tradition and classic American designs. It had been, among other things, what separated the Open from the PGA Championship. That organization force-fed us Valhalla in Louisville, KY and Whistling Straits in that old plumbing town of Kholer, WI, before either was worthy of such an honor. That was supposed to be beneath the standards of the USGA, who preferred a connection to the games’ history.
Places like Shinnecock Hills, The Country Club and Merion Golf Club don’t have that much in common apart from a shared history in the lore of the sport. Corey Pavin’s 4-wood in 1995 to hold off Greg Norman (Shinnecock). Francis Ouimet, the amateur, defeating legendary professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913 (The Country Club). Ben Hogan’s 1-iron on the 72nd hole at Merion in 1950 is one of the most photographed in all of sports.
Should new be off limits to the USGA? Not necessarily, but untested should be. What’s the rush?
Fortunately, after this foray into the former cattle ranch that is Erin Hills, the USGA is scheduled to visit recognizable and venerable courses for the next nine years. From Shinnecock to Pebble to Oakmont to Winged Foot to Pinehurst the names drip with memories of the game’s legends. The lone exception being in 2023 when the Open visits the 120 year old Los Angeles Country Club for the first time.
Now, that’s the kind of new tradition befitting of a U.S. Open.