Brooks Koepka, Erin Hills and a non-traditional U.S. Open
The 2017 U.S. Open was not a traditional U.S. Open.
Brooks Koepka walked away as the winner, posting a 16-under par total at Erin Hills, making him only the third player to win the U.S. Open with a score that reached double digits under par. He joined Rory McIlroy, who also shot -16 and dominated a wet and soft Congressional in 2011, and the LOL performance from Tiger in 2000 when he ended up fifteen clear of the field at -12. In fact, coming into the week, only Rory and Tiger had ever finished a U.S. Open in double digits under par. No one else in 2000 or 2011 was able to crack that barrier, nor was anyone else in the history of a championship that dates back to 1895. Hogan, Nicklaus, Jones, Palmer, Player, and literally everyone else not named Tiger or Rory have been able to get to that kind of number at the U.S. Open and stay there. Now, you can add Koepka to that list. You can also add Hideki Matsuyama, Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler, Bill Haas and Xander Schauffele to that group. You can probably also add a lot of money to your bank account if this question somehow comes up in conversation at a bar one night.
For clarity, Erin Hills playing as a par-72 obviously plays a part in the scoring, but the point still stands that what we saw wasn’t traditional in any sense. The USGA has a reputation, and a well deserved one at that, for going to courses that are overly penal to begin with and then they usually make them even more difficult by tricking them up a touch. The narrow fairways, which probably eliminates at least half of the field at the start of the week, become even more important to hit when you see high rough that also happens to be as thick as a Welsh accent. The greens are usually lightning fast, and when you combine them with where the USGA puts the pins, it makes it hard to score well even if you manage to hit one of those tiny fairways. If you happen to be in the rough, and you’re going at those pins, you’re more then likely to be spending the rest of your weekend watching the tournament in the comfort of your own home.
What happened this year was that the USGA went to a course that had wide fairways, perfect greens and some rain early in the week softened the course enough to allow for good scoring. The wind that was supposed to be the big defence for the course, didn’t really blow hard until Sunday morning, and by the time the leaders teed off in the final round, the wind was still blowing at a good pace but it wasn’t to the level that the early morning wave dealt with. The U.S. Open has never felt more like the PGA Championship, and you know what?
It was awesome.
If you check the mentions of your favourite golf writers on Twitter, you’ll likely see that many of them received messages from people about how this was a joke and that because the players weren’t struggling at Erin Hills, that this wasn’t a proper U.S. Open. There were numerous Greater Milwaukee Open references. The fans were out for blood, and in their minds, the only blood they saw was on the hands of the USGA for allowing this sham of a championship to happen.
If you’ve been reading this space for any length of time, you know that I’m not a huge supporter of the way that the USGA has handled things over the years. From the way they set up their Open courses, to the anchoring ban, to the fact that they’ve turned such a blind eye to the distance issue, and the way that they’ve handled the Rules of Golf on a general level in conjunction with the R&A, they haven’t done things that have made a whole lot of sense to me. In this instance though, they gave us a great championship.
First off, there was a diverse leaderboard of big hitters and precision players, and while Koepka hits the ball for days, he ended up being victorious largely because of his approach play after those drives and a hot putter over the final few holes. Erin Hills didn’t play to a specific type of player like many of us thought it would coming into the week, which is something that Andy Johnson touched on in this great piece about the 10th hole in particular. On top of that, the USGA has a knack for getting in the way when it comes to their championship. Whether that’s been related to the course setup, or last year with the Dustin Johnson fiasco at Oakmont, so much of the story tends to be around what the USGA did or didn’t do instead of who actually won the golf tournament. That didn’t happen this year, and while all of that controversy is good for #content and discussion, it was nice to not have to deal with it this time around.
Think about how often we see a new course in a big event on either the PGA or European Tour, particularly one that hasn’t been around for 50+ years. Now think about how often those courses get universal praise from the players like Erin Hills did this week. It just doesn’t happen. Even the players who missed the cut this week, like Rory, said how much they liked the course. Erin Hills presented intriguing options that we don’t get to see very often, particularly at a U.S. Open where you’re expected to hit iron down most fairways and be happy with making eighteen pars. It was a nice, refreshing change of pace to see a U.S. Open play out this way.
On some level, I get the idea that watching the top players struggle on the course can be appealing for some viewers, but much like the USGA couldn’t control the rain at Congressional in 2011, they couldn’t just turn on a wind machine this year. On Sunday morning, we saw what can happen to the best in the world when it starts to blow at Erin Hills. The only player who really seemed to thrive in the conditions, was Jordan Spieth who turned in a final round 69, which was nearly five shots better than the field average. It was tough out there on Sunday, and I’m sure that the USGA would have liked to see Erin Hills play that way all week, but it was out of their hands.
Instead, what we got was a leaderboard of wildly different play styles, interesting back stories and one of the best players in the world proving why he’s so good by dominating down the stretch and blowing everyone away. To me, there’s more entertainment value in that as a viewer than watching guys barely miss a fairway and their only play is a 25 yard pitch down the fairway. Watching Koepka, and others like Matsuyama, Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas, go low at a U.S. Open was fun because watching these players do extraordinary things is usually more entertaining than watching them struggle. Brendan Porath made this point on the Fried Egg podcast, but for some reason, it feels like we’re not giving Koepka enough credit for just how good that final round 67 was. It also feels like it’s going to be one of those rounds that gets forgotten about as we get further away from this championship, and that’s unfair.
Next year, the U.S. Open heads to Shinnecock; a fantastic course, and a more USGA-style track than most on the rota. In the three times they’ve hosted since 1986, the winning scores have been 1-under par, even par and 4-under par. You can be sure that it will feel like a regular U.S. Open, where players will have to play more conservative and take more trouble out of play. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s no doubt that Shinnecock will play host to a wonderful tournament and crown a deserving champion.
But so did Erin Hills, and it didn’t have to be a traditional U.S. Open to pull it off.