Width & Angles: A love story

My love affair of fairway width is well-documented. Wide fairways give the golf course a variety of setups and playing options on each hole. To the average television viewer, it’s not always easy to see the advantage of being on a particular side of the fairway. That’s unfortunate -- and it’s probably contributed indirectly to the scourge of tight, one-dimensional golf courses that have polluted the game for the past 50 years.
 
This week, the U.S. Open is being held at Erin Hills. This is what a proper, modern golf course should look like: wide fairways - coupled with huge, well-protected greens. The great advantage to a course like this is that it allows each hole to play significantly different from day-to-day by a simple change of a pin. 
 
I would argue that this strategic setup explains the most diverse U.S. Open leaderboards in recent memory. Short hitters such as Brian Harman and Chez Reavie are standing next to the game’s longest players like Brooks Koepka and J.B. Holmes. Erin Hills has turned the traditional strokes gained logic on its head. The conventional thought of hitting it as far and straight as possible isn’t the way to play Erin Hills. Instead, it’s about hitting it to the proper distance and angle so that you are able to attack the flag and control your spin. This is a rarity for players on the PGA Tour.

The 10th hole is a terrific example. On Thursday, it played as a simple long par 4 while on Friday it was transformed into the most difficult hole on the course just by moving the flag. The fairway is among the widest on the course at over 50 yards wide. A huge slope on the right half of the fairway gives shots to the right half a critical few extra yards. This creates a reward for players able to drive the right side of the fairway for certain pin positions.

During Thursday’s opening round, officials placed the pin in the benign, back left position. The easy pin resulted in the 514-yard par-4 10th playing as just the 10th toughest on the course. This simple pin position allows any ball in the fairway a chance to make birdie.  But it gave the biggest edge to players to that drove it up the right side of the fairway and caught the slope, yielding a shorter approach. 
 
With the help of the USGA’s website graphics you can see that the majority of the birdies came from players who played it up the right side and especially those that caught the slope (the cluster long and on the right half of the fairway).

When you look at the whole field, the dispersion of tee shots is all over the fairway with a bias to the right side.

Fast-forward to Friday and players were faced with a completely different hole as the pin moved to the right side behind the bunker. Now the ideal -- and almost necessary -- line was up the left side in order to open up an angle to the green. A long drive up the right that catches the right slope still shortens the hole. But it doesn’t make birdie any easier.  Instead, this pin placement  forced players to aim up to the left on the drive and forfeit the added yardage. In effect, the hole was lengthened without actually adding any yards. This is the kind of shift that dramatically changes golf tournaments. 
 
How much difference can shifting the pin really make? Well, the 10th hole played as the toughest hole on the course during Friday’s second round. 
 
Again using the USGA’s graphics, it’s easy to see the ideal side of the fairway to score from was the left side, with only one birdie made from the right side.
 

This time when looking at the overall dispersion, we see that the majority of tee shots wisely skewed to the left side of the fairway. Also notice how the players who hit the longest tee shots and caught the ridge rarely made birdie. While their approach shots were shorter, they were from a deep swale, making the shot to the tucked pin significantly more uphill than those who stayed short and left.

Suppose Erin Hills had the “typical” U.S. Open fairway width of 25 yards to the 10th hole. The course would have rewarded the technically proficient player who simply hit the ball down the fairway. The genius of this hole is that it still rewards the technically proficient player but only if they’ve played strategically
 
Some will suggest PGA Tour events should only be played on tight, tough golf courses. These unimaginative courses tend to reward the pure distance that makes strokes gained metrics pop. That’s nonsense. A course like Erin Hills -- which possesses width to allow for strategic angles to come into play -- is far superior because it identifies the best player that is also attacking the golf course in the strategically correct way.