Caulton Tudor

USGA jumps outside the Open box again

Posted June 12

Had it been a golf shot rather than a golf course, Chambers Bay (Wash.) would have gone over much like a skulled 3-wood in the 2015 U.S. Open.

Two years later, an undaunted USGA is operating outside the tradition Open course box again, this time beginning Thursday and scheduled to end Sunday at Erin Hills in southeast Wisconsin. Fox has TV rights for the entire tourney.

Erin Hills, age 11, is slightly older and maybe a bit better known than was the case at Chambers Bay, then eight. But compared to most of the traditional Open sites – Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, Merion (Pa.), etc. – Erin Hills is a tot just getting its footing and a strange, unfamiliar venue.

What’s more, Erin Hills very well could remind many players, fans and traditionalists of what they saw near Tacoma two years ago. Few players spoke kindly of the layout and virtually no one raved.

Gary Player went so far as to rate it the worst course he’d seen for a major professional tournament in 60 years. Tiger Woods shot 80-76, missed the 36-hole cut badly and left quickly and quietly. Martin Kaymer, who had won the 2014 event at Pinehurst going away, also missed the cut and exited without much comment.

The competition otherwise was perfectly fine, however. Jordan Spieth won by a stroke over Dustin Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen and that was after Spieth, Johnson, Branden Grace and Jason Day begin the Sunday round in a four-way tie for first place. Minus Woods and Phil Mickelson, that leaderboard was about as much as the informal catch phrase as the golf establishment could have imagined. Spieth, in April of ’15, had won the Masters, remember.

For public consumption, USGA officials came across as happy and pleased. But the week ended with a general assumption among players that Chambers Bay had hosted its first and final golf major tournament.

Whether it’s right or wrong, fair or foul, Erin Hills and the USGA course selection committee will have to deal with that shadow of Chambers Bay.

It doesn’t end there, either. There is a good deal of similarity in that Erin Hills, like Chambers Bay, is a huge piece of mysterious, unrefined property.

At the tips, Erin Hills measures almost 8,400 yards and at a time when 7,000 yards is still considered by most amateurs as outrageously long. For the Open, the daily yardage is scheduled to be in the 7,700-yard range and will be the first par-72 for an Open in more than 20 years.

Also, Erin Hills is a public course, but does not allow carts and the $280 green fee doesn’t include the use of a caddie. Nos. 1 and 18 are par-5s and there’s a 500-yard, par-4 awaits those who begin their rounds on No. 10. A couple of the par-4s could be drivable for the longest hitters and all four par-3s can be set up to differ significantly in yardage.

And in keeping with the USGA course selection process and redesign policies of the past few years, trees at Erin Hills will be harder to come by than double-eagles.

If you recall, Oakmont (Pa.), where Johnson won last year by three strokes over Jim Furyk, about 7,500 trees had to go in order for the Open to return.

Pinehurst, in 2014, eliminated so many trees that it might as well have changed its name to “Sandhurst.” Merion (Pa.) had a buzz-cut for 2013. Chambers Bay was basically treeless. Shinnecock Hills, next year, will be more of the same.

Without saying so, the USGA essentially has sent out the word that trees need not apply.

Erin Hills will have its protection, of course. There’ll be a lot of quick bentgrass greens, difficult bunkers, wind gusts, silky fescue in parts of the rough and some areas of unplayable wetlands. But if you’re looking for tree-line fairways, look elsewhere. The kind of courses on which Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and young Jack Nicklaus won U.S. Opens are going the way of persimmons drivers.

But in the long run, the scoreboard probably is more important than the scorecard. But even on that front, Erin Hills faces a challenge. Woods, 41, isn’t there and may never again play in a pro tournament. Mickelson, who will turn 47 on Friday, has withdrawn to attend a daughter’s graduation ceremony.

The betting favorites are Johnson, Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Day and Justin Rose. Masters winner Sergio Garcia, at 37, is playing his best in years and the field is awash in Tiger-wannabes.

It’s for sure that the USGA (PGA, too) dearly would love to see a lot of outdoor weekend theater, spills and thrills – even more so if the course comes under a barrage of unfriendly reviews from the players.

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  • Charles Boyer Jun 12, 1:58 p.m.
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    Not sure why Caulton is fixated on parkland courses -- the ones that typically have a lot of trees. After all, the Old Course is devoid of them, and it is a pretty tough test of one's game...because instead of trees, it has its winds and its undulations protecting it.

    We'll have to see what happens at Erin Hills. If the USGA is in a sadistic mood and sets up the course to be long and very narrow with rough more suited to the African savannah than a golf course, the tournament won't be exciting. If it is set up to give risk-reward options, then it could be great.

    We'll know on Sunday.

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