The 117th U.S Open: Course Insight

Erin Hills makes its much anticipated debut this week as a major championship course for the 117th playing of the United States Open, and the most asked question leading up to play remains the same: Will the Erin Hills live up to the U.S. Open standard as the “toughest test in golf?” Ten years ago, Erin Hills wasn’t even a golf course. This week, it’s a brutal 7,741 yard obstacle course that plays to a par 72, with no O.B., no water hazards, and the widest fairways any U.S. Open has ever seen.

Every major champion from the past three years and the top 60 players in the Official World Golf Rankings will be in the field including defending champion and World No.1 Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth. Shot-making ability, course management, and physical and mental resolve will be tested, but there are no guarantees the most talented player will be crowned champion. This is a U.S. Open after all, where four consecutive pars can push a player up the leaderboard, where the ability to minimize damage can be just as important as scoring, and where a simple yard can be the difference between a birdie and a double-bogey.

Erin Hills is the closest thing a U.S. Open course has ever come to a links-style track with knee-high fescue, wispy dunes, extremely penal bunkers, and winds that can gust up to 35 mph. Elevated greens and fairways won’t allow players to bounce shots into targets like at an Open Championship, but the massive slopes across all greens and fairways and uneven lies across the course are unmistakable. The primary defenses are length, fescue, wind, and green speed, but with pure, bent-grass putting surfaces and a forecast calling for minimal wind at worst, Erin Hills can be vulnerable to low scoring.

Long iron precision will be paramount to success this week for most players with many par-4s above the 490-yard mark. The four par-5s are gargantuan, above 600 yards, and prodigious drivers like Johnson, McIlroy, and Rahm will have a significant advantage. Still, Erin Hills demands a full arsenal of precision shots because of the punishing rough and bunkers.

Many drives at Erin Hills are blind or semi-blind, and determining lines and angles off the tee, as well as committing to those lines of attack can be difficult. Wider than normal fairways should keep most drives out of the fescue, but spots to hit on the fairway won’t seem natural to player’s eyes and that will definitely play tricks on their minds. Firm and fast surfaces will kick balls to places completely unintended.

GPS View of Hole No. 9 from the 18Birdies App

The most difficult par-3 is the shortest, and also the most terrifying. No. 9 will play between 135 to 143 yards any given day, from an elevated green that’s framed by a nasty collection of erosion bunkers and jumbles of fescue. It generally won’t require more than a wedge, but players who miss the green, one of the deepest at Erin Hills, will face the hardest shot on the entire course. Some of the bunkers will actually require players to hit back towards the tee to escape.

No. 15 is the most intriguing hole at Erin Hills, playing between 288 and 357 yards, making it potentially drivable on some days. The fairway is flanked by fescue-covered hills on both sides, with a small green protected by fearsome bunkers in the front and on the left. It’s a risk-reward hole for players who go for it in one, as a soft spine in the green might divert some drives off the putting surface and into one of the bunkers, where no one wants to be.

No. 18 is the longest par-5 on the course and first par-5 finishing hole at a U.S. Open in 25 years. Playing between 622 and 675 yards, the tee shot is slightly downhill, and the prevailing winds are at players’ backs, so you can expect to see some exciting, 400 or more yard drives here. The 18th is another risk-reward hole for players tempted to go for the green in two, as balls that wind up short or left of the putting surface will find deep fescue or maddening bunkers. No. 18 is also a tough green to hold on approach sloping severely from right to left with a steep falloff behind.

Players To Watch

Rickie Fowler’s game seems to fit Erin Hills perfectly. He’s long enough off the tee and is a great target player, which will be extremely important this week. Fowler’s arguably now the best player to not win a major, and winning here would be one of the best stories of the year, but unfortunately, I think his putting will let him down again. Still, expect Fowler to finish top-10.

As much as I hate to say it, I expect Rory McIlroy to struggle again at the U.S. Open this year, though not to the extent he did last year at Oakmont. No one will argue McIlroy’s distance off the tee is a huge advantage, and he’s arrived at Erin Hills extremely confident. Rory’s one of the best long iron hitters on Tour, particularly with his ability to hit high shots that can hold tricky greens, and flight them down when the wind dictates. But with so many players in top form, and McIlroy coming off a rib injury that’s kept him out of play since mid-May it’s hard to pick Rors to win, let alone contend. Expect McIlroy to finish outside the top-10.

Winner Prediction

Jon Rahm is playing in his first U.S. Open as a professional after finishing T-23 and low amateur last year at Oakmont, and despite a missed cut at The Memorial, Rahm is coming in to Erin Hills in top form. He’s picked up two top-5 finishes in his last four starts, and has the ball-striking skills and complete game to conquer any course. Rahm’s only played 20 career events on Tour, but his confidence and presence is impressive. In Rahm’s own words, “It’s a really big deal to be precise off the tee, which I am. I’ve got a good short game and good feel with the putter too. It’s [the U.S. Open] is one I could win.” If Rahm’s putter catches fire, which I expect it will, Rahm will be hoisting the U.S. Open trophy on Sunday evening.

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