Going somewhere new for the U.S. Open is starting to get old.
For so many years, everyone knew what to expect. With few exceptions, the event’s identity as the “toughest test in golf” was carved out of traditional, tree-lined courses with tight fairways and thick rough, firm and fast greens. No one ever complained about making par.
Dustin Johnson won last year at Oakmont, which hosted the U.S. Open for the ninth time. He defends his title on a course that only opened 11 years ago.
For the second time in three years, the U.S. Open is headed to a course that has never hosted a major.
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The stage this year is Erin Hills, the first U.S. Open in Wisconsin. The course looks like a links with its wispy grass framing rolling fairways and shaved slopes around the greens, except that it’s nowhere the sea. Erin Hills is about 40 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
“I heard it’s long. Big course. Long walk,” Johnson said before going up on June 3 to see it for the first time. “Trees? No trees?”
He wasn’t sure.
About the only similarities between Erin Hills and Chambers Bay, which hosted the U.S. Open two years ago off Puget Sound in Washington state, are that both were built as public golf courses and are mostly devoid of trees.
And no one is sure what to expect, even if they’ve already been there.
Jordan Spieth played the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills. He remembers rolling terrain and not many trees. He remembered the first hole and the 18th hole were par 5s (similar to Chambers Bay). And that was about it.
“Course knowledge is necessary, even more so there than a course like Oakmont that you’ve maybe watched on TV,” said Spieth, who won at Chambers Bay by one shot over Johnson. “Even seeing certain holes, if you just watched major championships in the past, can help you. And so when you come to a completely new venue, it requires quite a bit of work.”
Against this backdrop — pristine pastureland that dates to the Ice Age when a glacier retreated across Wisconsin — the 117th U.S. Open begins June 15 with plenty of intrigue that goes beyond the mystery of a new golf course.
It will be the first U.S. Open in 25 years that doesn’t have the names Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson among the starting times. Woods is missing all the majors for the second straight year because of a fourth back surgery, which was a month before his DUI arrest in Florida. Mickelson, with a record six runner-up finishes in the only major he hasn’t won, said he plans to skip because his daughter’s high school graduation is the same day as the opening round.
Johnson, who shipped the U.S. Open trophy back to the USGA a couple of weeks ago, will try to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to successfully defend his title. Strange is the only player in more than a half-century to win back-to-back, a feat that neither Woods nor Jack Nicklaus managed.
And there is internal pressure on the USGA to get through a U.S. Open without an overload of complaints.
“If I was being completely honest, there is some of that,” said Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director.
The greens were mostly dead, if they even had grass, when the U.S. Open was at Chambers Bay, though that was largely due to the weather. Still fresh is the fiasco from a year ago when Johnson’s golf ball moved on the fifth green and there was debate whether he caused it. The USGA told him on the 12th tee it would wait until after the round for him to review it, meaning Johnson played the final seven holes not knowing the score. Neither did anyone else.
“Those things could have happened anywhere,” Davis said. “But they happened to us.”
Even so, this U.S. Open starts with a golf course that has never had the best players in the world, and doesn’t look anything like a typical U.S. Open. The scorecard is 7,741 yards, making it the longest in U.S. Open history, though it likely will play shorter depending on how the course is set up each day. The fairways are wider than usual and there is no rough around the greens, much like Pinehurst No. 2., giving players options.
It’s a major with which Nicklaus is not familiar.
“I think the USGA has gotten away from their identity with what they’re doing,” Nicklaus said. “I haven’t see the way the courses are set up. I know Chambers Bay was different. I have zero idea what Erin Hills is. I happen to like the U.S. Open the way it is.
“When you start changing around your setup, you’re changing what you’re asking a player to do,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s just different.”
Davis, who took charge of U.S. Open setups starting with Winged Foot in 2006, says while the nature of the shots might be different depending on the golf course, the overall is exam is strong. He still strives to make it the toughest test in golf.
And he made no apologies for going to courses so new.
“What Erin Hills doesn’t have is history yet,” Davis said. “But everybody had to start somewhere.”
This one starts with a little mystery that goes beyond Erin Hills. Going into the Masters, the biggest names in golf were winning — Spieth at Pebble Beach, Sergio Garcia in Dubai, Hideki Matsuyama in Phoenix, Rickie Fowler in Florida and then Johnson, who for the longest time looked as though he couldn’t lose.
Johnson, now established at No. 1 in the world, remains the betting favorite for the U.S. Open. But he hasn’t looked quite the same since he slipped in his socks down a wooden staircase and bruised his back so badly he had to withdraw from the Masters.
“I’m playing the best golf that I’ve ever played, and then I hurt myself and can’t practice for a month,” Johnson said. “It definitely takes some momentum away.”
After missing the cut at the Memorial, mainly due to his putting, he spent two days at Erin Hills and liked what he saw. Johnson also is developing a reputation for being a U.S. Open player. Two years ago, he was 12 feet away from winning at Chambers Bay until a three-putt par to finish one shot behind Spieth. And then he won handily at Oakmont, even under the most bizarre circumstances of not knowing whether he would be penalized one shot when it was over.
“I’ve finished second and first,” Johnson said, pausing to smile. “Two-one-one would be nice.”