Erin Hills, the rare fair fight

“Traditional” U.S. Open venues dictate the way the game is played, and several feature long par 70s with tight fairways, thick rough and well-protected green complexes. These venues make tee-to-green excellence a prerequisite to contend.

As Rory McIlroy told us earlier this week, Erin Hills is different. Fairways are often double the width of your traditional U.S. Open venue. Deep fescue punishes the truly errant drive, creating - effectively - a one stroke penalty for bad misses. The greens are large but surrounded by fairway grass rather than thick rough. Dramatic slopes near greens funnel misses yards away from their target.

Early this week, the general consensus was that the par 72, 7,800-yard setup would dramatically favor the world’s longest players. To the surprise of many, Erin Hills has given every type of player the chance to thrive. Yes, wide fairways have allowed bombers to rip it. But shorter tacticians can answer back. They can gain an advantage by setting up ideal approach angles to attack pins. Likewise, short game aficionados can play ultra-aggressively and fire at every flag, knowing that the short grass green surrounds afford them the opportunity to recover.

In other words, this U.S. Open is a fair fight. Power players like Brooks Koepka have flexed their strength by pounding driver hole after hole, earning shorter approach shots into Erin Hills’ difficult green complexes. Meanwhile, tacticians have their angles and short game magicians have a stage to showcase their wizardry. Erin Hills has given this week’s event balance. 

One such example is Brian Harman, who hadn’t made a cut in a U.S. Open until this week. Harman is 120th in driving distance on the PGA Tour. Nevertheless, Harman has flourished by finding the fairway and setting up proper angles to attack the green. Through three rounds, Harman has hit 89% of the fairways and 78% of the greens, and he’s been afforded plenty of birdie opportunities to showcase his great putting ability. Even on a course that measures 7,800 yards, Harman has a chance to compete with players that can outdrive him by fifty yards (if not more). 

The length has not punished short game magicians either. On Saturday, Patrick Reed surged up the leaderboard with a 7-under 65. His round was amazing. The 6-time PGA Tour winner, who is looking for his first major win and top 10, made 8 birdies despite only hitting 12 of 18 greens. Erin Hills’ green surrounds are dramatic and extremely difficult, but their short grass allows recovery through great shots. This allows Reed to play more aggressive than usual at a major championship, knowing his spectacular short game can bail him out. On Saturday it did, with Reed hitting it routinely close but also short-sided himself on numerous occasions, recovering all but one time. 

Style-wise, Harman and Reed have little in common with Koepka. Brooks Koepka is the prototypical modern golfer, molded by what “traditional championship golf” venues require. Leaderboards at major championships are often dominated by this type of player. This week, Brian Harman and Patrick Reed aren’t prejudiced by the golf course. These are exceptionally talented players who have a course that allows them to showcase their skills. That is good for golf.  

Erin Hills’ design doesn’t reward one type of great play, it rewards all types of great play. So sit back and enjoy the different skills, talent and contrast, because we won’t see it again for a long time.

 

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