ERIN, Wis. – It’s a 675-yard trek due east, toward the majestic twin spires of Holy Hill in the distance and, as the 117th U.S. Open concludes, toward history.
From the tee, the par-5 18th hole at Erin Hills is postcard pretty, a snaking expanse of fairway, fescue and sand stretching nearly seven football fields, the flagstick a speck on the horizon.
When you have to play it, well, that’s another story. Jordan Spieth won’t soon forget his encounter with No. 18 in his quarterfinal loss at the 2011 U.S. Amateur Championship.
“Bunker to bunker to bunker,” Spieth said, describing the bogey that cost him a chance to advance.
Almost anything is possible on the 18th, especially with a championship hanging in the balance. The brilliance of the hole’s design is that it can be played any number of ways, depending on how it is set up by the United States Golf Association, where the player is in relation to the lead and how much he is willing to gamble.
Does he play the penny slots (iron off the tee) or no-limit Texas Hold ’em (grip it and rip it)?
“It’s exciting if it’s played the right way,” Spieth said, “and the right way is subjective.”
Eagle is in the mix. So, too, is Jean van de Velde-ian disaster.
“There’s a chance it could be fireworks,” said Jason Day, “or a chance there could be a lot of disappointment come Sunday.”
In the initial routing of Erin Hills by architects Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, the 18th hole was No. 9. Original owner Bob Lang, struck by the beauty of Holy Hill looming in the background and desiring a par-5 as his finishing hole – a rarity for the U.S. Open – convinced the architects to make the change.
It was the right move. Mike Davis, executive director of the United States Golf Association, has called No. 18 “one of the great closing holes in golf.”
When played at its maximum length of 675 yards, it will be the second-longest hole in U.S. Open history. Last year, the 12th hole at Oakmont Country Club measured 684.
But the 18th typically plays downwind so drives of 375 or more yards are possible if the player is willing to challenge a series of fairway bunkers.
“A lot of times it depends on how you feel at the moment,” said Jon Rahm of Spain. “If it’s 18 and I’ve been playing great all day, I’ve stroked my driver perfectly, well maybe I try to make an aggressive tee shot and see from there.”
That also would be the play for anyone within a stroke or two of the lead and needing a birdie Sunday.
“It definitely is going to make an exciting finish if it is close because there’s two different ways you can play the hole,” Day said. “If you’re coming from behind, you need to press, you obviously need to execute the best plan that you can to make that birdie.”
The leader, however, would be foolish to go for broke. No caddie in his right mind would hand his boss a driver in that situation. There already is one van de Velde, the Frenchman who lives in infamy after blowing the 1999 British Open in spectacular fashion on the final hole.
The smart option in that case is to hit an iron off the tee – or any metal club that guarantees a second shot from the fairway – followed by a layup shot short and right of the green. That would leave a wedge approach and all but eliminate the possibility of a big number.
Even then, though, the golfer’s work isn’t done. The green is an island protected by a false front and bunkers and tall fescue rough left. It slopes gently to the rear, toward a drop-off so steep that balls trickling off the edge wind up 40 yards down the hill, leaving a blind, uphill pitch.
“It’s a very difficult green with the prevailing wind,” Spieth said. “It actually pitches from the middle of the green to the back. And downwind, if the greens are firm, it’s almost an impossible shot if you’re outside 120 yards just to hold that green.”
With its multiple tee boxes, the 18th can be manipulated by the USGA depending on the direction and intensity of the wind, the firmness of the fairway and the amount of moisture in the green. Davis appreciates that kind of flexibility.
“It’s a marvelous finishing hole,” he said. “We don’t finish on many par-5s. Pebble Beach, and Chambers Bay was another. But it’s neat. And when we have one, I think it lends itself a little bit more to be a risk-reward hole.”
Birdie or bogey, eagle or other. History is waiting to be written in the shadow of Holy Hill.