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Tom Oates: Erin Hills deserves to host another golf major
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Tom Oates: Erin Hills deserves to host another golf major

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ERIN — The world’s best golfers weren’t alone in facing intense U.S. Open pressure over the past four days.

As a first-time venue for the tournament that thrives on tradition, 12-year-old Erin Hills Golf Course was under as much stress to perform as the players in golf’s national championship.

Would Erin Hills’ new-age length and radioactive fescue rough provide enough of a challenge for the golfers in the 117th U.S. Open? Would it make them uncomfortable enough that the United States Golf Association might someday return the major championship to Wisconsin?

The golfers had their way with Erin Hills for four days, which is unusual for a U.S. Open, where difficult courses and diabolical setups by the USGA traditionally make pars, not birdies, the objective. Even the wind, which finally blew on Sunday, couldn’t put a complete halt to an assault on par never before seen in a U.S. Open.

The 16-under-par score posted by first-time champion Brooks Koepka tied the tournament record set by Rory McIlroy in 2011. Seven players finished at 10-under or better, a score that would have won every U.S. Open except two. All told, 31 golfers broke par, three more than the previous record set at Medinah in 1990.

Koepka, a big-hitter who has been hinting at a breakthrough in a major since finishing fourth in the U.S. Open in 2014, emerged from a scrum atop the 30-and-under leaderboard with three straight birdies on the back nine, giving the tournament a deserving champion. However, opinions were mixed on whether Erin Hills deserved to be called a U.S. Open-caliber course.

For the most part, the players loved the course, especially the young bombers who are taking over the game. The double-wide fairways put the driver back in their hands, which is seldom the case on the traditional courses used for the majors.

Players griping about the course is a staple at U.S. Opens and, tellingly, there was little of that once the tournament began Thursday. Of course, it’s hard to complain when you’re putting up nothing but red numbers.

“I thought the USGA did a great job with the golf course,” said Brandt Snedeker, who tied for ninth place. “I know it’s not what everybody expected U.S. Open-wise, but they didn’t try to monkey with the course and get some arbitrary numbers. They let the course stand for itself. I thought the course played really well. It was fun to play. I thought it was very challenging.”

Media critics took a wait-and-see approach on Erin Hills, at least they did until the leaders moved to double-digits below par in the third round. This is not your father’s U.S. Open, they screamed. Some disparagingly compared it to the defunct Greater Milwaukee Open.

“The rap it is getting for the low scores and everything, it is what it is,” said Justin Thomas, who broke a tournament record with a 9-under 63 Saturday. “We had one day (with windy conditions) and the scores were more like an Open. They were obviously a little bit lower (Sunday). But it doesn’t matter what golf course you put us on, if there’s no wind and soft greens, we’re going to play well.”

Thomas makes a good point, which is why jumping to conclusions about Erin Hills is unfair. The week was a perfect storm for scoring and the course shouldn’t be written off because of it.

Rain early in the week left the greens uncharacteristically receptive for the first round. The course started drying out by Friday afternoon, but a storm Friday night kept the conditions ideal for scoring. It didn’t help that the wind — Erin Hills’ best defense — was a no-show until the final day.

A kinder, gentler USGA contributed to the low scores as well. The group took heavy criticism for its decision to hold the 2015 tournament at Chambers Bay, a first-time venue that wasn’t ready to stage a U.S. Open, and seemed determined to make sure Erin Hills was well-received in its debut.

Unlike Chambers Bay, Erin Hills was in pristine condition. Still, the USGA took the unusual step of having some of the fescue trimmed back before the tournament even began, a knee-jerk reaction that weakened the course. And to the surprise of many players, the USGA didn’t overreact to low scores with unreasonable hole lengths and pin placements in the later rounds.

Sure, some tweaks need to be made should the U.S. Open return to Erin Hills.

Madison’s Steve Stricker, who tied for 16th, suggested narrowing the fairways and thinning the fescue.

Still, the word most used by the competitors to describe the course was fair.

It rewarded good shots and penalized bad shots. If you drove it in the fairway, birdies were available. If you didn’t, bogeys followed.

“I think it’s an awesome golf course,” said Jordan Spieth, who tied for 35th. “I think that’s been the consensus from everybody. There are so many great ones to choose from. I’m sure at some point it will come back here. That’s hard for me to say, (whether it’s) deserving or not, because I have nothing to do with it. But in my opinion, I would like to see another one here down the road.”

With its smooth operation, enthusiastic crowds and promise of tougher conditions in the future, Erin Hills earned that right.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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The world's best golfers will be tested later this month in the U.S. Open by the Irish links-style course with fescue fairways amid the hills …

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