Erin Hills architects happy with U.S. Open
Course receives criticism for low scores


June 20, 2017

The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians at Holy Hill is seen over the grandstands on hole No. 18 as golfers set up on the green Sunday afternoon during the final round of the 117th U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills in the town of Erin.
John Ehlke/Daily News

TOWN OF ERIN — At a new venue for the 2017 U.S. Open, there were a lot of unknowns — among them the winning score.

Ron Whitten, one of the three masterminds behind the layout of Erin Hills, predicted a 16-under would win the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.

When Brooks Koepka hit a 2-foot putt for par on No. 18 on Sunday, the 27-year-old from West Palm Beach, Florida, became a U.S. Open champion, shooting 16-under par.

“If you get it on line, you can make putts on this course,” Whitten said. “I’ve also predicted if the wind didn’t blow, 16-under was going to win.”

On Sunday, the wind was at the highest it had been all championship week, yet Koepka and several others managed to post sub-70 rounds, including Hideki Matsuyama’s 6-under 66.

Whitten and fellow course architect Dana Fry were fine with the scores and how the championship played out. The third architect, Michael Hurdzan, couldn’t be reached for comment.

“This course was meant to address 21st century technology,” Whitten said. “It’s long, because guys hit it long. There are six, seven tees at every hole. It’s not meant to be played this long for the average golfer. For tournament conditions, it’s long, but we knew it wouldn’t play that long because there are a lot of holes where … if you take the challenge, you can be rewarded.”

Ron Whitten smiles as he watches the pairing of Keegan Bradley and Jordan Spieth on hole No. 17 on Sunday afternoon during the final round of the 117th U.S. Open Championship at Erin Hills in the town of Erin.
John Ehlke/Daily News

However, the low scores led to criticism, especially after 31 players finished below par, a U.S. Open record.

Traditionally, the U.S. Open bills itself as golf’s ultimate test. In most cases, the winners are only a few shots under par. Only twice in the previous 116 U.S. Opens had the winning score been 10-under or better. Tiger Woods accomplished the feat first in 2000 at Pebble Beach at 12-under. Rory McIlroy was the other, doing so in 2011 at Congressional at 16-under.

Since 2000, the winning score was even-par or worse six times.

“Soft conditions, lack of wind, except Sunday the first-half of the day, and perfect greens make for low scores,” Fry said.

However, six of the top-10 players in the world rankings didn’t make the weekend cut at Erin Hills, including each of the top-three players (Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day). It’s the first time since the world rankings were created in 1986 the top-three ranked players in the world missed the cut in the same major.

“I think it’s a great test,” said Brian Harman, who tied for second.

It was a test even for the champion, who, especially in the final round, made it look easy.

“This golf course is in fabulous shape,” Koepka said. “I love it, obviously. Yeah, I thought it was a great test.”

That’s what the USGA wanted and Whitten said the score relative to par is that — relative.

“It is a very different course than what the players have had in the past,” said Diana Murphy, USGA president. “Mother Nature has probably played a bigger role in this tournament than anticipated.”

It rained, sometimes heavily, in sporadic stretches throughout the early part of championship week. In addition, weather was mostly hot and humid with little wind, which helped soften the greens. Those conditions favor low scores.

Still, some players believe some changes need to be made to the course.

“I would think they would want to change a few things if it comes back here,” Steve Stricker said. “Maybe narrow the fairways a little bit. I’d like to see the fescue … I think I’ve said this before. I’d like to see the fescue a little bit thinner and the fairways a bit narrower, but it’s going to be harder to hit the fairways kind of thing.

“Some places it’s just too thick and too penal.” Whitten disagreed.

“If you built narrow fairways, nobody would hit a fairway,” he said. “You’ve got to give enough room to play in the wind.”

The criticism, warranted or not, didn’t diminish the week it was for the architects.

“I think for all three of us, it’s just a … in our wildest dreams none of us ever thought this would happen to any of us,” Fry said. “I worked with Mike Hurdzan for 24 years. He’s like a father-figure to me. To be able to share this with him is obviously a highlight as well.”

This week’s championship was the culmination of 13 years filled with dreams, hopes, construction and anticipation. The journey started in 2004 when Mike Davis from the USGA toured the facility, two years before the course opened. “When it took off for me was when two months later, he brought out David Fay, who was his boss, the executive director of the USGA, which is now the title Mike owns,” Fry said. “What I remember specifically about that is David Fay said these words, ‘One of the greatest tournament venue sites he had ever seen.’ There was no golf course there. It was just land.”

That land eventually turned into the product millions of fans from around the world saw throughout the week on television or on the internet.

“The players liked it, the fans liked and the TV commentators liked it so it was a big success,” Fry said.

All week, the architects sat back and watched and smiled.

“We all like it because it rewards good shots and punishes bad shots,” Whitten said.

“(The course) jumped up and bit a lot of people,” he added.