ERIN, Wis. — It’s somehow fitting that Erin Hills was a golf course sculpted by colliding glaciers about 20,000 years ago.
Fittingly — from all known predictors — the pace of play in the 117th U.S. Open could mirror those giant ice masses.
Five hours might be considered a lightning round as 156 golfers traverse around 7,700 yards of undulations and unpredictability.
Balls that don’t hit the unusually large fairways are at risk of being lost in the giant fescue that seems to grow exponentially with each time it rains, which it did Monday and Wednesday. More rain is expected Friday and Saturday.
Fourteen of the 18 holes have blind or semi-blind shots.
The bunkers have been set up as punitive, deep and unforgiving.
And this course is brand-spanking-new to all but a handful of golfers who have played it in the 11 years it has been open.
“If you have a lost ball, that’s going to wreck pace of play,” said Fox Sports analyst Paul Azinger, who won 12 tournaments, including one major. “You can’t see the ball coming, so the marshals are handcuffed. Some of that fescue is so deep, it’s not going to hop an inch.”
On Tuesday, the fescue was cut to about 4 inches on four of the holes.
The U.S. Golf Association, which runs this tournament, has a lot at stake after two problematic Opens.
Two years ago, a new Open course at Chambers Bay in Washington state was pilloried for its architecture, spectator accessibility and mostly its condition. The greens were in the kind of shape that left television viewers wondering whether the red and blue on their monitor was working.
Last year, winner Dustin Johnson’s ball moved on the fifth hole of the final round. The action caused a thundercloud of uncertainty because the USGA didn’t announce its rules decision until after the round. Johnson did them a favor by winning by three strokes, making the stroke penalty moot. There is a new set of rules for instantaneous decision-making this year.
Some players, in muted golf-speak, are less than thrilled with another new course.
“I probably do prefer the more traditional ones, just because there is a lot of history involved in those,” said Justin Rose, who won the U.S. Open in 2013 at Merion. “I definitely see the big picture of why new venues are important. But I think the rotation from now on is incredibly stellar and incredibly traditional.”
Even Andy North, who won two U.S. Opens and is an unofficial golf ambassador for Wisconsin, was a little cranky over the Erin Hills choice.
“To have it in our state is awesome,” North told Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. “But to me, the U.S. Open is Medinah No. 3, Oakmont, Oak Hill, Oakland Hills, Pebble Beach — historic traditional golf courses.
“I truly believe that a big part of the U.S. Open is the history of it. And it’s hard to have that history when you come to new courses.”
The next five U.S. Opens are at courses that have hosted the event before. In 2023, it goes behind the previously secretive doors of L.A. Country Club for the first time.
Erin Hills has a traditional par 72, the first time for an Open since 1992, when the event was at Pebble Beach. The usual form is to take the easiest par five and make it a par four. But not here.
The starting and finishing holes are par fives, also unusual.
The prospect of going for an eagle on the 637-yard 18th could make for an exciting finish Sunday.
“I think most people would agree that if you have an option for an eagle, then you’ve got an option for a six,” said Jordan Spieth, who won this tournament in 2015 at Chambers Bay. “I think the 18th hole here can produce both.
“It’s a very difficult green with the prevailing wind because it’s so flat on the green. It actually pitches from the middle of the green to the back. And downwind, if the greens are firm … it leaves an almost impossible shot if you’re outside 120 yards just to hold the green.”
The last six majors have been won by someone who had never won, but that is more of a statistical anomaly.
One person without a major is 22-year-old Jon Rahm, who last year was the low amateur in the Open.
“It’s like a links golf course on steroids; everything is a little bigger,” said Rahm, who won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines this year. “It’s big greens, big slopes, you have to be able to lag putt. With all the slopes going off the green, you might miss the green by three feet, roll off to 30 feet and be able to putt it.”
The one person rooting for bad weather is Phil Mickelson. He plans to attend his daughter’s high school graduation in San Diego on Thursday, then hop a plane to try to make a 2:20 p.m. tee time.
It’s a long shot, and by his estimation he needs a four-hour weather delay, but that might be some gamesmanship. Other people have calculated that with a strong tailwind and a Gulfstream V cranked to the max, he could do it with only a 90-minute to two-hour stoppage.
If the rain is heavy overnight, officials may push back the morning round to let the course dry out. But if that happens, there will be those who say the USGA is rigging the system to let Mickelson play.
And the USGA doesn’t want to start this tournament with another controversy.