ERIN, Wis. – Hey, it wasn’t as if part-time videographer, full-time PGA Tour pro Kevin Na didn’t warn everybody, right? Turns out that gnarly, knee-high, healthy green fescue looming like 300-pound tattooed bouncers right and left of the fairways at Erin Hills is tougher than a week-old, overcooked ham steak.
On Day 1 of the 117th U.S. Open, the taunting fescue certainly made its presence known on one of golf’s biggest stages, strangling the title hopes of some of the top players from around the globe.
Jason Day, the former World No. 1, made two triple bogeys (a professional first) and needed a birdie at the last just to break 80; the current World No. 1, defending champion Dustin Johnson, made one birdie and shot 75; Rory McIlroy spent too much time in the hay and shot 78; World No. 6 Henrik Stenson took 74 whacks; wunderkind Jon Rahm of Spain struggled to 76.
At one point late in the afternoon, leader Rickie Fowler stood at 7 under par, and the rest of the world’s top 10 were a combined 14 over. Forty-four players broke par (a Round 1 U.S. Open record), but for many top players, Opening Day 2017 was a true slog. The tall fescue played a key role in that.
“I found some pretty awkward spots out there,” Day said.
Hale Irwin, the 7-over-par survivor who took home the trophy at the U.S. Open’s 1974 Massacre at Winged Foot, was asked when Bethpage Black debuted as an Open venue in 2002 if he saw any similarities between the courses.
“The sand wedge back to the fairway,” quipped Irwin, the three-time U.S. Open champion, “is just as effective here.”
That was your father’s and grandfather’s U.S. Open. Tight, tree-lined, traditional courses and high rough that left very scant hope for recovery. To do well at an Open, a player needed to drive it straighter than an Oklahoma highway.
At Erin Hills this week, competitors are getting a vastly different look course-wise – a huge expanse of treeless land, much like they’d find at a British Open links, with fairways 50 percent wider than normal. But lurking nearby, that high, dense, damp grass still is high, dense, damp grass, regardless of the era. And trying to hit a ball from it is akin to swinging a 7-iron standing at the bottom of a pool.
“Early in the week, I said to my caddie, ‘Anytime we hit it in here, we need to make sure we putt for par,’ ” said Aussie Marc Leishman, who shot 68. “I didn’t try and get greedy out of it.”
Erin Hills’ fescue took on all comers on Thursday, regardless of pedigree. Big names struggled. Day took three swats to get back into play from the rough right of the par-4 10th hole. Jordan Spieth (73) hit the ball great for most of the day, but when he ventured into the tall stuff right of the 514-yard, par-4 fifth, he took one mighty swing and advanced his ball about 10 yards.
“You can see when they hit into it,” said Dana Fry, one of Erin Hills’ three architects, “they need to almost hit it out sideways.”
In his day, that’s what Irwin and his peers might have done, but at Erin Hills, it seems most players harbor grander plans than they probably should when standing in the knee-high stuff. Maybe it’s an ego thing. But the tall grass won on Thursday.
“This golf course is having its way with the best players on the planet,” Fox’s Paul Azinger said.
Earlier this week, McIlroy, who likes the venue, displayed genuine ire when told that the grounds crew was out trimming down some of the thicker fescue on four holes. McIlroy reasoned that the fairways were plenty wide, adding, “If we can’t hit it within that avenue, you might well pack your bags and go home.”
Barring a strong effort Friday morning, McIlroy, who didn’t hit a fairway after No. 10, might be doing that, packing his bags and making an early exit for the second consecutive year. Day and a few of the world’s top players may join him.
“You cannot play this golf course if you are out of position off the tee,” McIlroy said.
Aesthetically pleasing as that tall grass may be, standing tall and proud, it’s wreaking havoc here in the heart of the Midwest.
Said Azinger, “I think that fescue is pretty … only because I don’t have to play out of it.”