Hitting golf balls on the driving range this week, University Place’s Michael Putnam stopped to make a point.
He thumped the ground a few times with his iron.
“Green,” he said.
It was an obvious endorsement for the immaculate condition Erin Hills is in for this week’s 117th U.S. Open championship.
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Yes, the fescue grass here on this former cattle farm is bright and healthy, a stark contrast to the browned-out fescue Chambers Bay showed the world when it hosted the 2015 U.S. Open in University Place.
As Putnam gazed out on this massive piece of property, he marveled at its unique Midwestern grandeur.
He quietly noted this is what a mature Chambers Bay should look like.
No doubt, Erin Hills is a worthy first-time U.S. Open venue. Here are three reasons why people might like it better than Chambers Bay:
IT IS MORE MATURE
In a span of 18 months, USGA executive director Mike Davis visited two undeveloped sites 1,800 miles apart, and saw them as potential new U.S. Open venues in the near future.
Even though construction of Erin Hills began a year earlier (summer of 2004) than Chambers Bay (fall of 2005), and also opening 10 months before Chambers Bay in 2006 — the University Place links-style course got a U.S. Open bid first.
Being second was a blessing in disguise for Erin Hills.
Not only were course officials allowed extra time to make the mandated adjustments to the course before hosting this national open, the grass was given every opportunity to grow and prosper.
It helps that Erin Hills has a sole private owner in Andy Ziegler, who closed the nearly 650 acres to the public last fall to preserve its form.
And from players to caddies, volunteers to USGA officials, all have raved about the condition of Erin Hills this week for the year’s second major.
“The course is in magnificent shape,” said PGA Tour veteran Steve Stricker, who grew up down the road in Madison. “It’s probably the best-conditioned golf course we may see ever in a major.”
AN ENJOYABLE LAYOUT
Golf architecture is subjective, but the one adjective heard on the grounds this week by this field of golfers about Erin Hills is that it is “fun” to play.
Yes, even for a U.S. Open.
Why do they say that? Well, for one, it is a course that lends to low scoring under soft conditions, which Erin Hills has had this week.
And even though it is the longest course to ever host a U.S. Open, Erin Hills has two short par-4 holes — Nos. 2 and 15.
Its signature hole is also its shortest — the downhill par-3 ninth hole, which one of the course architects, Dana Fry, joked this week had the most difficult second shot on the course because of the green’s false front, and the surrounding bunkers with their small fingers of sand.
And, of course, Erin Hills has four legitimate par-5 holes, which gives the field ample opportunity to make up ground.
English star Justin Rose said he had heard grumblings about Erin Hills earlier in the year, but came up a few weeks ago to see for himself.
After an uneventful front nine, Rose said the jury was still out on the course.
“Then I played the back nine, and I came off and I loved it,” Rose said.
“What I liked about it is that it’s obviously demanding. … But there is room to play. It puts driver in play.
“And I like the green complexes. Normally on new golf courses, you have green complexes that I think are overworked and overdone. These certainly are not that. … They are a lot of fun.”
WISCONSIN IS HOT; WASHINGTON IS NOT
This has nothing to do directly with the two course, but let’s face it — reputation means something in the world.
And right now, Wisconsin is one of the true hotbeds for championship golf in the United States.
Whistling Straits, which was built in 1998, has become one of the crown jewel courses for the PGA of America. It has hosted three PGA Championships, and will be the site of the biennial Ryder Cup in 2020.
And now comes Erin Hills, which gives the state of Wisconsin its first — and likely not its last — U.S. Open.
Washington has its fantastic venues, too. Besides Chambers Bay, Sahalee has also hosted a major tournament for men (1998 PGA Championship), as well as women (2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship) and seniors (2010 U.S. Senior Open).
But Wisconsin golf has a different buzz.
“Hopefully bringing … big tournaments and the best players in the world to this part of the country can inspire kids to take up the game, and try and emulate some of us,” Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy said. “I’ve enjoyed my time. I’ve had two good weeks at Whistling Straits (2010, 2015) when I played here. It’s a good thing.”