The First Tee – The US Open by Adam Daly

Fantasy Golf Insider Staff
By Fantasy Golf Insider Staff June 12, 2017 13:29

The First Tee – The US Open by Adam Daly

The second major of the year is here with the U.S. Open, and it’s one of the more grueling tests on Tour (even more so if you get called on a ticky-tack putt infraction by the USGA) because the USGA believes that par golf is how the game should be played. With that in mind, the U.S. Open has picked Erin Hills to be the site of the 2017 tournament, which is a new course in the rotation that could make or break how the USGA picks sites going forward.

Just a reminder: the U.S. Open is Top-60 and ties, not top-70 like a regular week or Top-50 like Augusta. There’s no “10 shots within the leader” rule here, either.

The Course

Erin Hills is in the heart of Wisconsin, and is a relatively new par-72 course having been built in 2006, and was built by Robert Lang with the goal of one day hosting the U.S. Open. It was designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, and is a long walking course built on 652 acres of land. It’s a course built in the links style of (British) Opens with long fescue just off the rough, well-placed bunkers and hilly terrain, but its distinguishing feature is its length. Listed at just over 7800 yards – although with different pin positions it can play anywhere from ~7600 to 8000 yards – it will demand length both off the tee and on approach.

With that length, there are obviously some long holes: all four of the par-5s play over 600 yards, three of the four par-3s are above 200 yards, and five of the par-4s are over 500 yards. That should weigh both Driving Distance and Approach Shots Above 200 Yards heavily, although Erin Hills will demand more than just smashing the ball a country mile due to its tough terrain.

Off the tee, golfers will face straight tee shots (only two holes dogleg) that are sometimes blind due to the hills and mounds on the fairway, and need to be deadly accurate to avoid the fescue off the rough; the rough itself is thick but not Oakmont thick, but missing both the fairway and the rough will have the ball end up in tall, thick fescue. The only option out of the fescue is to chip back onto the fairway, because trying to slam the ball out could even result in injury (see: Mickelson at Oakmont)

https://twitter.com/wesleybryangolf/status/869628743903477764

The fairways have a few fairway bunkers strategically placed on either side on most holes, which isn’t the worst place to land at Erin Hills. The bunkers in the fairway aren’t necessarily deep, but they are cut in a way that a ball could get plugged, as the lips are rather high.

Once (hopefully safely) in the fairway, Erin Hills will be the toughest approach test on Tour this year: with the rolling terrain, golfers will face very tough lies and lots of balls beneath their feet. Long irons will have to be used more often than woods or hybrids, shortening the course even more. Beyond the actual striking of the ball, the greens here are very small (pea-sized), which will make sticking the approach shots that much harder. The green on the 2nd here is only 16 yards across! The greens are also guarded by bunkers that are a little deeper and a little longer than the fairway bunkers, and on nine of the 18 holes the greens are also guarded with bunkers in front so leaving balls short isn’t an option.

The greens are bentgrass and fast – not Oakmont fast, but probably around 13-13.5’ on the stimpmeter – and have some undulation, false fronts, and some holes will even funnel the ball off the green with closely mown angled sides. With how tough it is just to get to the green, a golfer could conceivably two-putt every hole and be close to coming away with the win.

The X-factor this far away from the tournament will be the wind. Wisconsin can get quite windy, and a links-style course is completely exposed to the elements with the lack of tree protection. For a tough course, if the wind picks up high enough it will make it infinitely harder – make sure to stay on top of radar and tee times leading up to the tournament.

The Course History

Obviously with this being the first time Erin Hills has hosted, there’s no perfect course history to look at. The course has hosted a couple amateur events in the past (2011 U.S. Amateur Champ, 2015 Wisconsin State Amateur Champ) that offer small glimpses into how tough it can be here. Although Wisconsin isn’t renowned for its Amateur golfers (not one recognizable name in the 2015 field), the winner walked away after four rounds at +5, the cut was +17, and 76th place shot a +50.

PGA golfers that played in the 2011 Amateur that did well include Patrick Cantlay, Peter Uihlein, Jordan Spieth, Russell Henley, and the winner Kelly Kraft.

Some possible comparison courses to look at (remember that nothing will be perfect):

  • Royal Birkdale, host of the ’08 Open. Same links-style with the hilly terrain, fescue, exposed to the elements. 700 yards shorter, so not a perfect comparison, but it’s definitely a tough course – Padraig Harrington won the Open with a score of +3.
  • Kiawah Island, host of the ’12 PGA Championship. Approximately the same length, Kiawah was a tough test (Rory won with -13 but 2nd place was -5) with lots of bunkers and sloping, but it’s a completely different design (a Pete Dye) and Bermuda greens.
  • Chambers Bay, host of the 2015 U.S. Open. Another longer course, the USGA wouldn’t want Erin Hills compared to this abomination of a tournament. It was a tough test for golfers (scoring average for the field +1.29), but a large part of that was terrible poa annua greens and bad design.
  • Whistling Straits, home of the ’04, ’10, ’15 PGA Championship. This may be the best course on this side of the pond for comparison, and it has recent history which is also a plus – although Jason Day’s -20 in ideal conditions a couple years ago doesn’t offer the best side-by-side to Erin Hills. WS is another long (7790 yard) links-style course with the same dunes and hills, and it’s also exposed to the elements. The fairways aren’t as tough as Chambers Bay or Erin Hills.

Stats

The Strokes Gained stats to focus on in order (not including Tee to Green):

  • Approach
  • Off-The-Tee
  • Putting
  • Around the Green

Counting stats to focus on in order:

  • Bogey Avoidance
  • Good Drive % (this combines length and accuracy, and can be found on PGA Tour’s Stats section)
  • Greens in Regulation %
  • Approach Shots 200+ Yards
  • Par-4 Efficiency Above 500 Yards
  • Driving Distance – although GD% covers distance, Driving Distance on its own has a major correlation with making Birdie or Better and is obviously important this week.
  • Launch Angle – any time the wind can be a major factor, golfers that shoot low angle drives won’t be as impacted by the wind.

 

The Golfers

Paul Casey ($8400) – Paul Casey has some a great mix of Off-The-Tee numbers that could help put him in great spots at Erin Hills, and has performed well at some of the comparison courses – a T30 and T10 at Whistling Straits, T7 at Royal Birkdale, and a T39 at Chambers Bay. He has the long and low drive that’s emblematic of English and South African golfers, which is so important to succeed at links courses, and he currently sits 15th in Good Drive percentage. He’s not as long off the tee as some of the bigger names (only 295 yards on average), but he hits the fairway consistently.

Sitting 7th in Ball-Striking (combination of Total Driving and GIR), Casey has been great on Approach (3rd in SG:App), although a little lacking outside 200 yards which could mean some trouble. Between 150-17 and 175-200 however, Casey is 9th and 4th respectively and overall ranks 23rd in Proximity to the Hole which has helped him find 70.68% of Greens in Regulation.

The worry for Paul Casey is always the same thing: his putting. In almost every putting category, Casey sits in the bottom third of golfers – except Approach Putt Proximity where he ranks 15th, leaving only 2’1” to sink second putts. That will come into play a lot more than on a regular course, because putting will be neutralized a bit with just getting to greens being a struggle. Most approaches will have the ball beyond 15’ from the hole, so Casey’s consistent two-putt skill will come in handy. If his putter can get hot – and it’s actually been not bad on bentgrass – Casey can compete here and challenge for the US Open Trophy.

Adam Scott ($8800) – The combination of Casey and Scott will make it very hard to use one of the elite tier golfers, but Scott is very similar to Casey with his excellent ball-striking, steadiness off the tee, and low launch angle and makes a nice lower-owned play. Also like Casey, Adam Scott has found some success on the comparison courses: T4 at Chambers Bay, a T9 and T39 at Whistling Straits, and T16 at Royal Birkdale.

Scott historically has struggled on the greens, consistently finishing in the bottom third of the rankings, but he’s actually having a fairly decent year in that regard – he’s 34th in Strokes Gained: Putting, mainly due to his putting outside 10’. Seeing Scott stand over a 4’ putt can be a scary thing (126th), but he’s leaving only 2’3” on approach putts and has hit a fair number of putts from a distance.

What makes Scott an elite golfer and always in contention is his game on the way to the greens, as he’s a longer hitter off the tee with an average drive of 302, and hits good drives 84.4% of the time. He ranks in the middle of the pack on long approach shots, but overall he’s gained 0.465 strokes on approach and hits 67.54% of greens in regulation. He’s got an excellent Par-4 Scoring number of 4.02 and an even better Par-3 number of 2.97, and has the distance to score on the par-5s here when few others will be able to.

Thomas Pieters ($7700) – There may be some bias in this pick, so tread lightly, but the Belgian checks a lot of boxes:

  • Long off the tee? Pieters is currently averaging 294 yards (on 24 measured drives) on the PGA Tour, but is averaging 309 on the European Tour. Both these averages are slightly longer than last season’s numbers
  • Good on approach? Although he doesn’t have enough tracked rounds to qualify, Pieters has gained 0.908 strokes on approach (which would have him 3rd) and his proximity from outside 200 yards is only 48’10”, a top-40 mark.
  • Scoring? He’s averaged 4.30 birdies on the Tour this year, has an overall birdie or better% of 24.44%, and although he’s not incredible at avoiding bogeys, a large part of that is from his 3-putting numbers.

Beyond those 3-putt numbers, Pieters has been a stud on greens this year – if he had enough tracked rounds, he’d currently rank 16th in SG: Putting. He struggles on longer putts but has been nails inside 10’ (90.87%), so with his approach game he’ll give himself some birdie opportunities on the greens.

Pieters is still young, but his performance at Augusta this year as a rookie was incredibly impressive, sneaking into a T4. He hasn’t played at any of the comparison courses, but have proven he can do well on big stages with a 4th place at the Olympics last summer to go along with the Masters finish this year and at T14 at the BMW PGA Championship across the pond with a great field.

 

Good luck this week! You can follow me on Twitter @adalyfrey if you have any questions, and my DMs are always open

Fantasy Golf Insider Staff
By Fantasy Golf Insider Staff June 12, 2017 13:29

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