Column: U.S. Open golfers gain edge over Erin Hills in Round 1

US Open-Round 1-Erin Hills Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports

Column: U.S. Open golfers gain edge over Erin Hills in Round 1

Golf

Column: U.S. Open golfers gain edge over Erin Hills in Round 1

ERIN, Wis. – It wouldn’t be hard to imagine United States Golf Association officials huddling late into the night Thursday, wringing their hands and formulating a plan to take back the U.S. Open.

Because in the first round, the players owned it.

Erin Hills, a new venue for the 117-year-old championship, wasn’t exactly Winged Foot circa 1974. For all its thigh-high fescue and eye-straining length – at 7,845 yards it was the longest set-up in major championship history – the course was as docile as the cattle that once roamed its glacial hills.

Rickie Fowler, playing in the morning wave, put up a 7-under-par 65, which tied the lowest first-round score in relation to par in U.S. Open history. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf both opened with 7-under 63s at par-70 Baltusrol in 1980.

US Open-Rickie Fowler-Round 1

Rickie Fowler was on his game Thursday, (Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“It’s always cool to be a part of some sort of history in golf,” Fowler said. “But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday.”

Paul Casey of England and Xander Schauffele of San Diego, who survived a 5-for-2 playoff in sectional qualifying to get here, both shot 66s.

“I would have snapped your arm off for 6-under,” Casey said. “I’m a Rickie Fowler fan and the golf he proposed this morning was beautiful. I was hoping and praying I would be half as good as Rickie, so to be right behind him, I’m ecstatic.”

Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, insists his organization is not overly concerned with scoring, that “protecting par” is a tired cliche. Davis wants the course to be stern but fair and let the chips fall where they may.

But when they’re falling in the hole, that’s another matter.

Trust us, the USGA does not want to see a Phoenix Open break out in the shadow of Holy Hill. A total of 44 players broke par Thursday, setting a U.S. Open record for most scores under par in the first round. The previous record was 39 at Medinah in 1990.

“USGA-wise, it might be a nightmare because the course played easy,” said Brandt Snedeker, who shot a 70.

But why? Blame it on a perfect storm of circumstances.

No. 1, the USGA undoubtedly wanted to err on the side of caution in its set-up, because Erin Hills is a complete unknown. No. 2, storms this week saturated the course with water, and a soft course is an easy mark. No. 3, the wind didn’t blow at all in the morning and even a strengthening afternoon breeze was not enough to inflict damage on scorecards.

“If you’re ever going to get a U.S. Open and be able to score, today was the day,” said Charley Hoffman (70). “The fairways were semi-soft. The wind was not blowing too hard and the greens were receptive. So if you hit the ball in the fairways, which are fairly big, you could score.”

US Open-Erin Hills-Sergio Garcia

Sergio Garcia hung tough during Round 1 of the U.S. Open Thursday. (Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports)

Fowler, 28, made it look easy, rattling off seven birdies in his bogey-free round. He has eight top-16 finishes in 12 starts on the PGA Tour this year, including a victory in the Honda Classic.

“There’s no golf course that’s not going to fit him when he’s playing this good, and he’s done it all year,” said Joe Skovron, Fowler’s caddie. “Even though somebody might say he’s only had one win, if you look at it statistically it’s been an awfully good (ball-)striking year and putting year. So there haven’t been many weaknesses in his game.”

Now that Sergio Garcia has won the Masters, Fowler might be the best player without a major trophy on his mantle.

“I take it as a compliment,” he said. “There are a lot of really good players out here that haven’t won a major. So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I’m not saying this is the week or isn’t the week. But I like the way this golf course suits me, and we’re off to a good start.”

Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood of England and Brooks Koepka shot 67s.

Adam Hadwin of Canada made six consecutive birdies, tying a 25-year-old U.S. Open record, and shot a 68. Kevin Na, whose flailing-in-the-fescue video went viral earlier in the week, also had a 68.

The par-5 18th hole, playing at 632 yards but downwind, yielded four eagles and a whopping 62 birdies.

“It played pretty easy,” said Jamie Lovemark (69). “As you can see, the scores are pretty low. Just so much rain. I’m sure the USGA is bummed about it.”

Not everyone took advantage of the benign conditions. Of the top 10 players in the world ranking, only Fowler and Garcia (70) broke par. The other eight were a combined 26-over. Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson had a 75. Rory McIlroy shot a 78 and Jason Day struggled to a 79 with two triple-bogeys.

And if the course dries out and the wind blows a bit harder, Erin Hills is fully capable of doing an about face, especially with Davis tweaking the set-up.

“We’re all interested to see where the pin positions are tomorrow,” Casey said, “and if there’s a knee-jerk reaction.”

Regardless, no one expects the birdie-fest to last. Some players might recall that there were 39 sub-par scores in the first round of the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, then making its debut as a major venue. By Sunday the course was so difficult that Vijay Singh won despite a 76.

“The more sunny days we have like this, it’s going to get firmer and faster as the week goes on,” said Patrick Reed (68). “You can’t start Thursday having them as firm and fast as you want, because by Sunday the golf course would be unplayable.

“It’s going to be tough. But we all expect that.”

(This column was written by Gary D’Amato of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)

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