By Dan Reardon
This year’s national championship of golf, the U.S. Open, was overrun with the PGA Tour’s working class, and they did it in the Dairy State.
This is not to diminish Brooks Koepka’s brilliant stretch run in becoming the U.S. Open champion. The 27-year-old dominated the course from both the tee and the fairway. A player with his length could never be expected to hit 87% of the fairways and parlay that into 86% of the greens. A closing 67 is winning, not waiting for others to falter. But as much as those numbers are a credit to him, they also raise concerns. In his PGA Tour career, Koepka has never averaged a fairway percentage out of the 50s and a GIR percentage above 70.
As mentioned a week ago, U.S. Opens historically have been about the course. And now that the sticker is off the window and Erin Hills has been driven around the block by the guys who can play, a post-Championship assessment is appropriate.
From this vantage point, the Championship venue was a poor facsimile of an authentic major track. Watching the field disassemble the nearly 8000-yard walk in the park, was seeing a brochure course revealed for its lack of substance. The course is pleasing to look at, but that’s about as far as it goes.
When USGA CEO Mike Davis saw Erin Hills’ DNA a dozen years ago, he envisioned a hybrid links course both visually and substantively exceptional. At this point he was half right. This preteen course lacks major character. The most insulting statement about a golf course design is that it has a high degree of sameness. With its elevated tees and greens, runway-wide fairways and framing seas of waving fescue, the holes last week lacked individuality in appearance and, more importantly, in required skill set.
A U.S. Open is intended to identify and separate out those with the game, mind and psyche to handle adversity and success. Erin Hills largely was not an examination but rather an open-book quiz.
Accuracy from the tees was once a prerequisite at a U.S. Open. At Erin Hills, it was assumed. Before the wind visited on Sunday, Bill Haas, never a candidate for the drivers’ hall of fame, hit 39 of 42 fairways and barely cracked the leaderboard top 10. For the week, 32 players averaged better than 80% fairways hit. Six players had at least one round where they were a perfect 14-14. That is not your father’s U.S. Open.
When Johnny Miller set his record eight-under 63 in the win at Oakmont, it was one of three rounds in the 60s. When Justin Thomas eclipsed it Saturday at Erin Hills, there were 17 others who broke 70. There were more under-par rounds in round one and round three at this year’s U.S. Open than ever before in history. In that third round, the field shot level par, fine at John Deere, disappointing in a 117th edition of a national championship. At Medinah in 1990, 28 players finished in red numbers. At Erin Hills the total was 31. Only twice before this year had a player finished double figures under par. There were seven in 2017. Runners-up Brian Harmon and Hideki Matsuyama would have won 114 U.S. Opens with their 12-under totals.
Major leaderboards are usually a mix of proven and not, but always populated by a who’s who in the game of golf. At Erin Hills, for four days, the leaderboard read like a ‘who’s that.’
Some argued that six of the top 10 in the world dusting out of the field after 36 holes was a validation of the course. Look more carefully at the group, and the explanation may not be about Erin Hills. #1 Dustin Johnson — nothing since his Masters injury. #2 Rory McIlroy — damaged and eight months without a win. #3 Jason Day — one run at the Nelson and little else in nine months. And #10 Jon Rahm — two days at Erin Hills with the temperament of an infant who had missed his nap.
USGA President Diane Murphy and Davis may take solace in the compelling nature of Koepka’s powerful play over the closing holes. He was Dustin Johnson one year later without a rules controversy. But one has to wonder about the eyeballs lost to a leaderboard mostly devoid of marquee names.
Time will tell if Koepka has greatness in his future. But the most under-par U.S. Open in history should spark some USGA conversations at Golf House. They will need to decide what profile they want for the championship in the coming years — the hardest tournament in golf to win or a champion with a winning total six strokes better than Memphis the week before.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.