Old man par is usually your friend at the US Open but Erin Hills is such an unknown quantity that the world’s best are hedging their bets on the winning score this week.
The first par-72 course to stage a US Open since Pebble Beach in 1992 is a veritable monster, measuring 7,741 yards from the back stakes with deep fescue rough lining both sides of every fairway.
But with heavy rain taking the still out of its billowing fairways, little wind forecast and the greens more receptive that in previous years, 2015 champion Jordan Spieth sees the winner getting well into the red.
“I don’t see par winning the tournament,” said Spieth, who is the second favourite with the bookies to win his third major behind the world No 1 Dustin Johnson.
“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.”
Unlike Spieth, who is one of the early starters today with Graeme McDowell and Paul Dunne, Shane Lowry will have the luxury of an afternoon tee time, giving him the chance to see the morning scoring and a sense of what he might have to do. Tied ninth at Chambers Bay and a runner-up behind Johnson last year, he’s clearly a player to watch, but he very much feels that he’s heading into the unknown.
“I don’t know what it is going to play like,” Lowry said. “Dustin drives the ball well and he can shoot seven-under.
“If I drive the ball well, the greens are as pure as you can get so there are no excuses there. And the fairways are generous so that you can hit your driver. In a way, it is nice being out in the afternoon on Thursday because you get to see what the scoring is going to be like.
“I went out at Congressional when Rory won thinking I need to make pars. All of a sudden I shot one-over and was pretty happy and I was lying 50th and miles off the leaders. It’s nice to be able to see scoring and what people are doing.”
The tougher the test, the more Lowry thrusts back his shoulders, but Erin Hills is far more than an examination of your ball-striking.
It’s also a physical and mental inquisition and that will be a challenge for everyone from Johnson and Rory McIlroy to Greystones’ Paul Dunne, who is making his professional debut in a major.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia failed 73 times before he finally hooked the big one at Augusta National in April and if the Spaniard learned anything that week, it’s that patience is a virtue in the Grand Slams.
“Every week is different, so some weeks you feel a bit calmer than others, and your patience is better,” Garcia said. “Hopefully this week will be one of those weeks where I feel calm and collected, and my patience level is way, way high.
“When it comes down to commitment, it’s just a matter of believing. I think that at the Masters I did that very, very well with all aspects of my game.”
McIlroy is praying that length will be a key factor and given the sometimes erratic nature of his wedge game and putting, he needs the onus to be very much on driving and long iron play to end his near three-year wait for that elusive fifth major.
“It’s a long golf course and it’s only going to play longer,” McIlroy said. “That benefits a few guys, and luckily I’m one of them.
“At Chambers, we hit a lot of drivers, but it was obviously very dry there. Last year at Oakmont was a little bit of a different story — more of a tactical sort of golf course, even though it was wet and played quite long, too.
“But I think driving the golf ball is a big skill in golf, and I feel like this golf course definitely tests that. And you need to have driver in your hand here if you want to take advantage of the golf course.”
Like McIlroy, Australian Adam Scott is looking forward to pulling out the big stick but over-aggression is something that could backfire badly here.
Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion and this year’s Masters bridesmaid, is under no illusions that whatever about the soft conditions by US Open standards or the generosity of many fairways, this is going to be a huge test of patience.
“This hay is more than a stroke penalty because there may be nowhere to drop it,” Rose said. “Or you might be forced to having a couple of goes at it out of the hay.
“So it really is paramount to keep the ball in play, as it was at Merion. I think at Merion I accepted that and I played the course accordingly. This week’s going to be much the same from that point of view, just keeping it in front of you.”
It’s all new to 24-year-old Wicklow man Dunne but having played in three majors already as an amateur, he’s not panicking about his US Open debut as a professional. “I feel more comfortable [than at the Open], I don’t feel overwhelmed by anything. Obviously, it is a different type of major but I have played a lot of American style golf courses in college.
“Visually it’s Irish, but it plays American. I think it sets up well for me. If I am driving and putting like I am come the tournament, I would be confident I can do well.”
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