There's been a clear sentiment on social media this week that's anti-Erin Hills.
Well, maybe not so much sentiment against the first-time host as it is a sentimentality for classic U.S. Open venues: Oakmont, not Soakmont; hoping to fast forward to a Shinnecock Hills Tom Meeks can't touch; even adulation for a Merion that had to be tricked up to host in 2013. Those venues conjure images of crying and gnashing of teeth that generations have come to expect from Golf's Toughest Test TM.
After years of complaining that winning scores well over an artificial par had gone too far, fans have seemingly had enough of the best players assaulting championship scoring records at venues the prove too susceptible to scoring. Rory McIlroy stomped all over a soggy Congressional in 2011. Martin Kaymer made a mockery of Pinehurst No. 2 in the first two rounds in 2014, coasting to a second major. An unexpected dry spell in the Pacific Northwest reduced the best-laid plans for Chambers Bay to rubble. Rain weakened Oakmont, and so did an unforgettable rules fiasco. Sense a theme?
In 2017, rain has again done it, softening a course purpose-built for the Open and its eye-popping scorecard. Wide fairways got wider. Greens got softer. Long holes still played shorter. The combination has so far yielded historically low scoring on a rare par-72 Open course, giving 1990 at Medinah a run for the most identity-confused Open in a generation.
All of that makes Erin Hills an easy target, in both a literal and rhetorical sense.
But I'll say this until this championship ends -- hopefully on Sunday -- and well beyond: Erin Hills is a fantastic golf course.
Now, it isn't particularly fan friendly, as asking imbibed fans to walk a 650-acre property is a bad idea. (Although it's better than Chambers Bay, which jailed fans into lousy viewing corridors or kept them from watching the eighth hole in its entirety.) But the U.S. Open is now primarily a TV affair, and that's precisely why so many fans aren't getting Erin Hills.
The trio of designers who shaped the course moved very little dirt to shape a piece of land expertly carved by glaciers in the last Ice Age. They moved dirt on four holes. Their philosophy, which is in line with modern-minimalist design, was to give players of all stripes options and choices -- the kinds of things that hang up quality golfers than prescription and constriction. They wanted to let blind shots, which come into play on 14 of 18 holes, force a player to trust themselves while sowing the kind of doubt that can creep into a player's mind. They wanted to lull players into a false sense of security with wide fairways surrounded by punishing-yet-beautiful fescue.
In other words, Erin Hills, representative of the second Golden Age of architecture, is played more in your mind than on the turf.
The difficulty is in making the right decisions to set up the next shot for the next shot -- thinking as many as two shots ahead of the current one, all while trying to stay in the moment. Most golfers, certainly those watching on TV, don't do that. On tighter courses, there's less thinking and more execution because the ideal shots are prescribed.
The challenge off the tee isn't in finding the fairway; it's finding the right portion of the fairway. It's not particularly hard to hit these large greens, but it is trying to execute the kind of shot that lands in the smaller radius around a hole location that allows an easier putt. Then there's the extra wear and tear of ripping driver on most holes and having a tough time scoring on a course that seems so damn easy.
All of that makes this course hard to get, particularly for television viewers, who aren't given much perspective on how the design influences players' choices (more Gil Hanse, please). Fox's primary task is to show the what of golf, not to explain the why of golf, at least in architectural terms. So when a fan sees large fairways and minimal bunkering, the first thought is that this course is easy compared to other Open hosts which beat golfers and fans over the head with lots of bunkers, deep rough and less subtle greens.
Perhaps that's why so much has been written lauding the short par-3 ninth. It's really easy to understand. The hole is short, the kind of length most amateurs would play. The target is clear and clearly awkward in its shape and contours. The penalty for failure is even more clear. It's a cerebral hole, yes, but cerebral in the way that "Wheel of Fortune" is compared to "Jeopardy!".
Throughout the week, I've told people on Twitter that they just have to play Erin Hills to understand why it's great. As fans, we tend to associate greatness of a course with the conditions thrust upon it championship week and the winners that hoist trophies there. But neither of those are a fair criteria for judging a course. The best courses are challenging without the need for brute force alone and give opportunities for any kind of player to succeed. Erin Hills does both.