2017 U.S. Open preview: Erin Hills is mystery to be uncovered at 117th U.S. Open

By Steve Habel, The Sports Xchange  |  June 14, 2017 at 8:09 PM
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In most weeks on the PGA Tour, it's the players that rule the discussion for the individual events, which march along week to week without much fanfare outside those that regularly follow the game.

All that is changed on U.S. Open week, when the stakes are raised and the course steals the limelight.

This year, Erin Hills in the rural Wisconsin town of Erin (about 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee) is the host course for the 117th edition of America's golf championship. And it's a bit of a mystery to those players from around the world who will tee it up beginning Thursday.

Part of the intrigue surrounding this championship is that the players chasing the second major of the season are as much in the dark about how this big-shouldered, fescue-framed, inland links course will play as those of us who will be watching.

Erin Hills, which can be stretched to more than 8,200 yards from its back tees, will play at 7,741 yards and to a par of 72. It will be the first par-72 setup in a U.S. Open since 1992, when Pebble Beach Golf Links hosted and ninth since World War II.

"It's a well-designed, well-bunkered golf course with a bunch of tee box options," 2015 U.S. Open winner Jordan Spieth said. "It's kind of tough to prepare because there's three or four tee boxes on almost every hole that we could be playing from. We'll just get out there and just see what they give to us.

"At the U.S. Open it's very tough but still fair and exciting, and you expect par to be an extremely good score. I think that's knowledge. And here, with my early thoughts, I don't see par winning the tournament. I see closer to 5- to 10-under.

"Someone who has very good control of the ball off the tee will have plenty of opportunities to make birdies, given the conditions that we're expecting. And I think the USGA is very much OK with that."

It's the third course in the last decade to host a U.S. Open for the first time (after Torrey Pines in 2008 and Chambers Bay in 2015). It is also the first course in the state of Wisconsin to host a U.S. Open and the first U.S. Open to be held in the American Midwest since 2003 when Olympia Fields, outside Chicago, hosted.

The 2017 U.S. Open generated 9,485 entries, the fifth-highest in history. To be eligible, a player must have a handicap not exceeding 1.4, or be a professional.

A field of 156 players will chase the $12 million total purse, of which $2.16 million and 600 FedExCup points will go to the winner. The field will be cut to the top 60 and those players tied at that standing after 36 of the 72 holes, and there will be an 18-hole playoff on Monday if there is a tie after regulation play ends Sunday evening.

Forty-nine of the top 50 players in the world -- led by world No. 1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson -- will compete in the event. Ryan Moore is the lone player missing from that group due to a shoulder injury.

The field includes 25 major championship winners, led by five-time winner Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els of South Africa (who has won four majors), Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland (four), Angel Cabrera of Argentina (two), Zach Johnson (two), Martin Kaymer of Germany (two), Spieth (two), Bubba Watson (two), Lucas Glover, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Danny Willett and Justin Rose of England, Webb Simpson, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Jason Day and Adam Scott of Australia, Henrik Stenson of Sweden, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker, Jim Furyk, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Keegan Bradley and Stewart Cink.

McIlroy, who has been away from the PGA Tour since The Players Championship last month as he rehabs a rib injury, has had more time than most to see how Erin Hills will play.

"One of the course architects, Dana Fry, walked around the course with us which I thought was really beneficial," McIlroy said Monday. "From what I've seen so far, it's really good. I feel like you can be aggressive off the tee and be aggressive with your approach shots. If you do miss a green, it's not that you're going to be chipping out of the thick rough. It goes in these collection areas and runoffs. It's a little bit of a different challenge than what we faced in U.S. Opens in the past."

There are also 14 amateur participants competing in the event. The U.S. Open has had eight amateur winners (five players), most recently John Goodman in 1933. The last amateur to finish inside the top 15 was Spencer Levin (who tied for 13th) in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills.

Following the third round of the 2017 Memorial Tournament, Mickelson announced that he will likely not be competing in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, due to a time conflict with the high school graduation of his daughter, Amanda.

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