That, coupled with last year’s rules fiasco in the final round that left Dustin Johnson in turmoil before prevailing at Oakmont, has left the USGA with absolutely no room for error this week and, already, they are making the golfing world feel nervous rather than excited about what is in store at a venue that lies north-west of Milwaukee.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 winner, joked following his first visit how he feared caddies could be “lost” searching for balls in the rough. A video posted on social media by American Kevin Na has now highlighted what the Ulsterman was trying to illustrate. Even though he was only a few yards away as he threw a ball into the rough, Na had difficulty finding it. When he did, there was no chance of getting it back on to the fairway. Even Popeye would be struggling.
It would be unplayable if the fairways weren’t more generous than we normally expect for the US Open and that’s one encouraging factor as we wait to find out if the USGA is still capable of staging an event of this magnitude without getting something horribly wrong. Make no mistake, the game’s governing body on the other side of the Atlantic is being scrutinised this week like never before and it has a duty to the game to get everything right on this occasion.
Which makes some of the comments by Mike Davis, the USGA’s executive director, in the build up to the event extremely worrying indeed. “In all of my US Opens, this is one of the most complicated sites to set up,” he confessed. “It’s a really windy site. If you set up for a particular wind and it changes, the set up you’ve worked on probably won’t work.” That spells trouble, I’m afraid, because what strikes you most looking at pictures of a course that comes across as rugged and raw is that wind is indeed going to be a huge factor and trying to ensure the correct set up will be massive headache.
Get that right, though, and the USGA, in fairness, could be on to a winner with this new venue. Rory McIlroy, for one, is impressed with Erin Hills, where, incidentally, the event will play to a par of 72 for the first time since Pebble Beach in 1992. Nineteen stagings since then, including the last five, had 70 as par.
“I like it. I really do,” said McIlroy, the 2011 winner, of a course that was created by a team of designers from spectacular rolling countryside sculpted by glaciers. “I’ve heard a lot about Erin Hills over the past four or five years and it has definitely lived up to expectations. For a US Open venue, it’s a little more generous than we have seen in the past, which is great. It will allow guys to be aggressive. It gets a little tricky on the greens sometimes but, overall, I think it is going to be a great test. I think this place is going to be a huge success.”
It is certainly in pristine condition. Shutting the course completely since last autumn has seen to that and, on another encouraging note, the greens are much better than the dreadful-looking ones at Chambers Bay. “Guys are going to make putts this week as they really are a perfect surface,” observed Justin Rose, the 2013 champion, as he joined McIlroy in giving the venue a big thumbs up. “I did not know what to expect because Chambers Bay changed the mould completely in terms of what we’ve come to expect for the US Open, but this is completely different and I really enjoyed,” he added after his first practice round.
In truth, the USGA needed to be visiting one of its tried and tested venues – the likes of Pebble Beach or Pinehurst – this year, but the wheels, of course, had already been set in motion for Erin Hills when the USGA came under fire for Chambers Bay and, even more so, bringing embarrassment to the sport over its handling of that rules situation at Oakmont 12 months ago.
Let’s just hope that, in the wake of what’s happened in recent history with this event, that it has indeed taken steps to ensure that a fair test awaits in the 117th staging and also remember it’s the players who should be in the spotlight for producing brilliant golf rather than officials trying to be either clever or stupid.