What We Learned: Staff lessons from the first-ever U.S. Open at Erin Hills

June 18, 2017

The 117th U.S. Open crowned a new major champion at a first-time major venue in Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. A lot went on during the week. Here’s what our staff will remember most from golf’s national championship.

Jon Rahm has a temper—and, you know what, that’s O.K.

As the mercurial Spaniard Jon Rahm scowled, pouted and club-tossed his way to a MC at Erin Hills last week, I kept returning to the same thought: This guy is going to be Ryder Cup gold. By all accounts Rahm is a good hombre—fun, warm, approachable. But in the heat of competition he makes the Hulk look huggable. In the first round, I was greenside at the 4th when Rahm punctuated a shoddy chip by slamming his putter into his bag as you might an ax into a log. On the tee box on the next hole he admonished a pack of reporters and other assorted hangers-on for not keeping pace. “Every hole guys!” he bellowed. “Really!?”

He was just warming up. On Friday, Rahm went full Rodman, tomahawking his seven-iron, pounding his fists, fuming. He even threw a bunker rake. It was alarming, childish behavior. And I kind of loved it. In this era of players trading smiles and fist-bumps in the climactic moments of majors and pro-bros Instagramming their spring breaks together, golf needs more villains, more tension, more snarls.

“I know golfers are supposed to try and internalize everything,” Rahm said after making eight bogeys in 36 holes and missing the cut by four. “I wish I could. Just imagine a Coca-Cola bottle. You shake it once, it comes down. You shake it again, it goes down. If you open it, it’s a complete mess. That’s what happens if I try to keep it down.”

Fast-forward 15 months to Le Golf National, in Paris, site of the next Ryder Cup (“I so want to play in the matches,” Rahm said earlier this year. “It is my dream”)—Sunday afternoon, tight contest, Rahm struts on to the tee to face … PATRICK #$%&@! REED. The red-faced, finger-wagging Reed vs. the irascible Rahm. Two sticks of dynamite just waiting to blow. I’d row a boat to France to watch that match. So stay fiery Jon Rahm, stay human. You and your emotions are good for golf. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Alan Bastable

The United States Open can make you and break you

The giant Rolex clock read 2:29 p.m.

Twenty feet away, Justin Thomas was the last man standing on the range Sunday afternoon. The newest Mr. Sixty-Three.

Butch Harmon, behind him, arms crossed; caddie Jimmy Johnson to the right.

Thomas took cut after cut as the Jumbotron in the distance showed highlights of his historic 63. The three-wood and the clutch putt, all less than 24 hours earlier. A third-round 63 is memorable, but a 63 and a United States Open trophy is for the ages. Thomas trailed 54-hole leader Brian Harman by one, but Thomas was still the talk of the tournament.

At 2:30, the 24-year-old had another visitor. This one crept up next to Butch and Jimmy to say hello. He interrupted Thomas’s routine, but JT, who was preparing for the biggest round of his life, didn’t mind.

“Good luck, buddy,” said Jordan Spieth, who left as quickly as he arrived. “See y’all tonight.”

Spieth took long strides while exiting via a staircase near Thomas.

“Alright, JT,” he said. “Do your thing.”

If only it were that easy.

At 2:53, Bob Ford’s voice crackled over the PA system.

“This is the 2:54 starting time. Please welcome, from Louisville, Kentucky, Justin … Thomas.”


Fast forward to 5:01. Much had changed. Thomas saved par on the 9th for a front-nine 39, eight strokes worse than the day before, and he was now six behind leader Brooks Koepka. It would be a round to forget. He signed for 75 and tied for ninth, eight strokes behind Koepka.

“I was excited for today; I felt very comfortable,” Thomas said after his round. “I just didn’t have it today. … I mean, to be honest, it just sucks to not even have a chance on that back nine.”

What a difference a day makes.

— Josh Berhow

Erin Hills’ immaculate range offers serenity during Open week

The thing I liked best was the sprawling driving range. It was at its most inviting late in the day, when the balls were off it, except a stray here and there, and there was not a soul around. No players, no security guards, just some racing jackrabbits. You’ve never seen lovelier grass in your life and there are a half-dozen or more stand-up greens scattered about it, bunkers beside them, filled with dark sand.

One night, I chatted with Andy North on the range, at the end of his workday as an ESPN commentator. Andy’s professional life has been defined by the U.S. Open, which he won twice. We were talking about what Open courses used to be like and what they’re like now and he was looking at the range and he started to make phantom swings. The man is 67 and he won his Opens in ’78 and ’85 and he’ll tell you that he doesn’t even play golf anymore, which he means not in a literal way, but there he was, in the twilight, on the Erin Hills range, making these phantom swings that were models of grace.

That was on Saturday night. On Sunday afternoon on the range, I stood for a while with Curtis Strange, who won two Opens himself, and who is now a golf reporter for Fox. We watched Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka hit balls and Curtis said, “I like this guy,” pointing toward Koepka. I think by that he mean he thought Koepka would win, which he did. He got his name on the same trophy that carries the names Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Andy North and Curtis Strange.

I said to Curtis, “How ’bout this range?” And Curtis looked at the range north and south and east and west and said, “All I really needed was a field. But this is nice.” It really was. You can have the course, beautiful though it is. Too easy for them and too hard for us. But I’d like to come back and play the range.

— Michael Bamberger

The 15th hole is the best spot to take in the beauty of Erin Hills

One thousand, nine hundred and forty one steps will take you almost to the farthest point of Erin Hills.

It’s worth every single one.

The 15th hole wasn’t the hardest hole at the 117th U.S. Open, but Sunday it bared its teeth. The “short” par-4 played 357 yards into a whipping 35-mph wind. That was 68 yards longer than it played on Saturday, when it yielded more birdies than any other score on that hole.

And while it played like a monster in the final round, it was also the calmest place to view the 2017 U.S. Open.

Make the trek out to the western-most point of the course, passing by concessions and bean bag chairs, grandstands and lounges. It’s easy to want to stop there, but press on. Up blind hills and down fescued knolls, up again to the 15th tee. Turn east and all of Erin Hills lies below you. It’s quiet, breezy, and you can see for miles, Holy Hill resplendent in the distance.

“This is the place to be,” said Joe Dunne, a volunteer who had been posted at the 15th all week. “I mean, look around!” He had a bum knee, so the trip wasn’t a cakewalk for him. But there’s no place he’d rather be.

From his perch, Dunne took in the 14th fairway and green, and if he craned his neck, the 4th fairway, the 17th fairway and the 5th tee box. He could hear the crowds in the 16th grandstand and, of course, watch the strategy that goes into playing this beast of a hole. Six out of 10 golfers who passed through chose woods over irons. Two backed off their shots, the wind whipping in their faces.

“They’ve been tearing up this hole this week,” Dunne said, chuckling. “The course is getting a little revenge today.”

From the highest point of the longest course in U.S. Open history, that revenge looked pretty sweet.

— Marika Washchyshyn

The next big thing for Wisconsin golf has arrived

As Wisconsin hosted its first men’s U.S. Open this week, our focus was on Dustin Johnson’s defense, Phil Mickelson’s weather forecast and native son Steve Stricker, the golf pride of the Dairy State.

While it was good fun to see Stricker qualify for this Open in his home state, it may be his last one. At 50 years old, his next move is playing down the road next week, in Madison, Wis., at a Champions Tour event, and beyond that, playing major championships IF he can qualify. THE GUY for Wisconsin golf is sure to age well, but who will replace him? The future was visible on the first tee Thursday.

“He seems to be in a good spot,” said Rod Niebrugge, father of Jordan Niebrugge, the other Wisconsin native who played at Erin Hills. “He definitely is, he’s on the first tee!,” exclaimed Rich Tock, marketing director of Erin Hills and legend in the Wisconsin golf professionals world.

It may have been the very first gallery of the week, but it was all Wisconsin. Badger red, Packer green, Niebrugge’s family, friends and a bunch of other Wisconsinites—even Erin Hills head pro Jim Lombardo—were all there watching him smack the first ball of the tournament. It was really just a poor man’s Steve Stricker gallery.

Niebrugge is 23, the same age Stricker was when he turned professional and immediately began his career on the Canadian Tour. Where was Niebrugge playing the week before his sectional qualifier? Up in Canada, on what is now called the Mackenzie Tour.

As an All-American collegiate golfer, Stricker trudged along through professional golf, eventually reaching the Tour and winning for the first time at 30 years old. As an All-American collegiate golfer, Niebrugge is trudging along through the secondary tours, working his way up the ladder.

Step by step, he’s becoming the NEXT best thing for golf in Wisconsin, filling that Stricker-sized void that is only sure to grow. Next week, he’ll play on the Web.com Tour, just 290 miles south of Erin Hills. If he’s anything like Stricker, a bunch of cheeseheads will make the trip.

— Sean Zak

Golf cannot be conquered, only played

As I watched Justin Thomas sink his historic eight-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole at Erin Hills on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by his demeanor. Though he had just shot the U.S. Open’s magic number—63—and set the record for the lowest U.S. Open score relative to par, ever, at nine under, there was no celebratory exclamation, or even a hint of a smile. Thomas, with a steely gaze, strode past fans with their hands held out for a high-five as he made his way to the scoring tent.

“Wow,” I thought. “Justin Thomas just shot a 63, and all he can think about is the work he has left to do in order to lift the trophy on Sunday evening. He’s going to win the Open.”

Of course, my premonition was incorrect. Thomas opened his final round on Sunday with three bogeys in his first five holes, and the rest is history.

I feel for Thomas, because we’ve all been there, haven’t we? One day, you think you’ve got it all figured out. The ball travels everywhere you want it to go. It’s effortless. You shoot a record-setting 63 and hit a 3-wood over 300 yards with ease. The next day, on the same golf course, you’re 12 shots worse. Why? No one knows. That’s golf.

That’s also the beauty of our beloved sport, because while Thomas and the field played Erin Hills for four straight rounds, no one played the same golf course twice. Tee positions, hole locations and the always changeable wind and weather ensured a new challenge every time they teed it up.

What’s the old saying? “Golf cannot be conquered, only played.” At the end of the day, that’s what keeps Thomas—and us—coming back for more.

— Jessica Marksbury