If the 2017 U.S. Open were a horse race, smart gamblers would sit this one out. Not that tournament handicapping is ever easy or advisable given the fickle nature of our sport, but at most majors we can at least lean on current form, past performances at the venue and design intricacies for some sort of educated guessing.
Not at the Erin Hills Derby.
Outside of 2011 U.S. Amateur contestants Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau, no one of note in this year’s field has extensive experience at Erin Hills. The course has changed a bunch since that championship, and while the bombers are expected to have an enormous advantage at a longer and wider-than-normal venue, we just don’t know who it will favor.
The art of putting could also be valued differently this year, with superintendent Zach Reineking’s A4 bentgrass surfaces reportedly the smoothest anyone has ever seen on a U.S. Open course. Will this just heighten the advantage of supreme putters or elevate the merely so-so who normally struggle on the bumpier Poa annua we see at most U.S. Opens?
No one can say for sure how this track will play.
Couple these course factors with the inconsistent form of the game’s top talent with the more pronounced wind influence than some inland venues, and no one will blame you for shrugging your shoulders and passing.
Following The Players Championship, the U.S. Open handicapping situation was dire, but the prediction business has at least been aided by a few finishes from expected contenders. At Colonial, Jordan Spieth nearly caught the uber-consistent Kevin Kisner, and Jon Rahm rebounded from a TPC Sawgrass third-round 82 to offer some assurance he had recovered from that shocker. Then Rahm missed the Memorial cut, and while no one is even remotely less bullish on his star potential, expectations will be more tempered for the time being.
Speaking of missed Memorial cuts, there was the head-scratching Dustin Johnson opening 78 that had the U.S. Open’s can’t-miss defending champion suddenly looking vulnerable. Since his pre-Masters mishap and Players missed cut, however, Johnson seems to have lost the incredible early momentum built with wins at Riviera, Mexico City and Austin.
Johnson scouted Erin Hills on June 3, and while he didn’t take to social media to declare his fondness for the place, he rarely ever posts about golf there. We’ll just assume the player who has finished T-4, T-2 and first in his last three national championships will see the USGA-emblazoned grandstands, and the pre-major juices will be flowing. And never underestimate the mojo factor when he feels emboldened to hit driver.
Rickie Fowler remains another wild card, but if this were horse racing, his tie for second place at the Memorial would get many bettors’ attention.
In no way a horse for Jack’s course, Fowler’s overall steadiness this year bodes well, as does his ability to play in the wind. While many of today’s stars tend to be bewildered by the influence of wind, the Temecula, Calif. native is used to it and uses the vagaries of air to his advantage. The same can’t be said for the rusty Rory McIlroy, a Northern Irishman who gets flustered by wind and changed golf balls to ease his fears.
So there you have it, a real mess of a race to bet. But it sure will be fun watching how the handicapping angles play out in this run for the U.S. Open Trophy.