As the second major championship of the season rolls around, the TOUR preps for a new venue, Erin Hills in Wisconsin.
The new kid on the block was designed to be a beast when it was built in the early 2000s, and that is what draws the headlines leading up to the event. Playing at the tips, this course plays over 8,000 yards but the USGA has provided 45 tee boxes on the scorecard this year and if the shortest boxes were used it would play as short as 7,305 yards. We should expect a happy medium as the official yardage will be cited around 7,741 yards.
FIRM and FAST conditions with WIDE fairways should reduce the true yardage, as long as you’re not spraying the ball into the fescue. If the course gets hammered with rain before Thursday like it might (About 1.6 inches forecasted from Monday thru Wednesday), the fairway rollout may lessen a bit but the fairways should still have some bounce in ’em.
With all that length, a big topic of discussion will be distance this week. Kelly Kraft had this to say en route to his victory here at the 2011 U.S. Amateur, “not every day you play one that is so firm like that and the ball can roll forever.” Of course that was played in late August so perhaps the conditions were a little firmer then. Still, to me this screams strokes gained off-the-tee as the top stat this week because distance will be a nice advantage but if you can gain strokes just by keeping it between the pipes then the shorter hitters are going to be using the fairways like a bowling alley, just letting the firm fairways carry their ball past some of the bombers who sprayed their ball into the high grass.
With seven par 4s over 450 yards and all four par 5s stretching out past 575 yards, we should see plenty of big numbers as golfers try to recover from errant tee shots. However, the generous fairways should also allow golfers to take it real low (by USGA standards) if they have a good driving day. The wind is going to be the biggest defense for Erin Hills since there are less than 10 trees in play over the entire course. It is very links-like in that regard and will ultimately decide whether the winner is 1-under or 11-under by week’s end. Keep a close eye on the wind forecasts.
Course comparisons will be tossed around all week, and I am often guilty of getting caught up in this game of connect the dots. I will provide some course/event comps but I do want to preface that by saying you shouldn’t rely heavily on course comparisons, just as an added element of handicapping.
After the gaudy length, the first thing I notice about Erin Hills is the rolling fairways which lead to uneven lies left and right (similar to Augusta National or Kapalua). The grass types (bentgrass/fescue) in combination with tricky bunkers and the lack of trees/water lead us to looking at the Open Championship. The number of blind shots and elevated greens could lead it to play like a Pete Dye design. Lastly, the difficulty of setup means we should look at prior success in PGA Championships and U.S. Opens. Basically, we are looking for solid performance in major championships.
After Chucky 3 Sticks played the course back in 2006 he called it Whistling Straits on steroids which I think may be the best 1-to-1 comp we have given the look and length of the course as well as the location. Do you really need to inject steroids into a 7,500 yard course though?
Looking for trends of the past winners at this event?
==> Each of the last nine winners had at least one top-6 finish in their five most recent PGA TOUR prep starts (a sign of form is important).
==> Also, prior success on a USGA setup has been crucial. Nine of the last 10 winners have already had a top 20 on their U.S. Open resume prior to winning. While I think this basic idea is important, don’t let it be a strict guideline and rule out someone like Jon Rahm just because he’s played the U.S. Open once and finished T23 instead of finding the top 20.
Enough of the babbling, check out the Fantasy Golfanac if you want to read more quotes or angles on this week’s setup.
Players to Watch
Jordan Spieth… With a new course on hand, guys like Jordan Spieth and Jason Day immediately pop to the forefront since they are elite when it comes to scouting and gameplanning a new track. Day’s approach game is in shambles at the moment which drops him down my board but Spieth is right on the cusp of putting it all together. He’s gained strokes off the tee in three of his last seven lasered events and gained strokes putting in 3-of-7 as well. However, he hasn’t gained strokes off-the-tee AND putting in the same week since the AT&T Pro-Am, which happens to be the last time he won. Arrives with a runner-up just two starts ago and we know he can handle what the USGA throws at him , posting three top 25s in five U.S. Open starts including his win at Chambers Bay.
Brooks Koepka… Looking at his recent form, Koepka is locked in again tee-to-green, with the only thing holding him back recently is too many trips to the water hazards. With a linksy-style course on deck, Koepka should be able to bomb-and-gouge Erin Hills without the fear of finding water. He’s always been a self-proclaimed Hard Course Specialist so it’s no surprise he already owns eight top 20s on his major championship resume including a T5 at Whistling Straits. My heart tells me Brooks is ready to win a major.
Steve Stricker … Will be the media darling this week as he tees it up in his home state. He keeps it between the pipes and he’s one of the best putters in the world. No stranger to U.S. Open success either, posting up inside the top 10 after R3 in 6 of his 19 U.S. Open starts.
Matt Kuchar… Sticking to the same mold, Kuchar will keep it between the fescue and has every shot in the bag, except for the 320-yard drive. Now that Sergio’s knocked off a major, Kuchar is right up there with Hideki, Rahm, and Fowler, as the most elite golfers currently without a major. With more than 10 blind shots on the course this week, I’m thinking success on Pete Dye tracks could come in handy, and Kuchar is the man when it comes to Pete Dye performance.
Thomas Pieters… If we’re looking for a boom-bust option that will either be 4-under or 4-over come Thursday afternoon, Pieters is the man. Definitely has the talent to win a major but I’m not going to bank on that in his first look at a U.S. Open setup. Love him as a GPP option on DraftKings and FanDuel.
Rickie Fowler… The American in that same mold as Pieters would be Fowler. He has all the tools to win a major, but he’s not afraid of a good Thursday blowup (as we saw last week at the St. Jude Classic). In 8 U.S. Open starts he’s been inside the top 10 after R1 on two occasions but he’s also been outside the top 100 three times, all on rounds of 76 or worse. Before last week’s MC he had posted top 20s in seven of his last eight starts, so let’s not completely forget about him.
Rory McIlroy… Returning from injury with the ever-so-popular Spyder putter in his bag now. Would be the man to beat here if he arrived without any injury concerns and a normal workload of events played. That is far from the case, though, which forces you to put a RISKY label next to his name. Kind of hard to imagine him piecing together four solid rounds after such a long layoff.
Billy Horschel… Nearly backdoored a win last week after looking like he may miss the cut after R1. We know Billy is a self-proclaimed momentum player, so he could be one to watch this week.
Maverick McNealy… Should be an interesting summer for McNealy. The top amateur in the field (and possibly the world) has a few starts locked up and if they go well then we can expect him to turn pro. If he suffers, then we may see him pivot and head his way up the corporate ladder. He’s 3-for-4 on the PGA TOUR but nothing inside the top 45, so I am keeping a close eye on him but not rushing out to own him just yet.
Dustin Johnson… Gets to enjoy the birth of his second child early in the week before heading to Erin Hills to play the role of defending champ. Looking at our top comp course (Whistling Straits), DJ posted finishes of T5 and T7 the last two times the TOUR played there. Other golfers with top 10s in both trips: Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Matt Kuchar.
Branden Grace… Erin Hills is an Irish-inspired links-style course, although they like to call it a “heartland” course. You can’t deny the links attributes (wide fairways, exposed to the wind, bentgrass & fescue grasses, tricky bunkers). The golfer in the field who outperforms his baseline most on links courses is Branden Grace. Also has four top 5s in major championships, so he’s not scared of the spotlight.
Shane Lowry… Early reports say golfers will be pulling driver A LOT this week. Looking at performance on driver-heavy courses, Lowry sees the biggest leap in performance over his baseline. He’s not too shabby on a links-style track, either. Just missed out on my top 25 but it wouldn’t be too shocking to see him pop this week.
My Top 25 for the 2017 U.S. Open
1. Jordan Spieth
2. Dustin Johnson
3. Sergio Garcia
4. Adam Scott
5. Matt Kuchar
6. Justin Rose
7. Jon Rahm
8. Brooks Koepka
9. Rickie Fowler
10. Charl Schwartzel
11. Jason Day
12. Rory McIlroy
13. Steve Stricker
14. Louis Oosthuizen
15. Branden Grace
16. Paul Casey
17. Brandt Snedeker
18. Martin Kaymer
19. Thomas Pieters
20. Lee Westwood
21. Henrik Stenson
22. Francesco Molinari
23. Jason Dufner
24. Byeong Hun An
25. Billy Horschel