Into The Record Brooks
The host course, Erin Hills, for the 117th U.S. Open is the first course owned by one individual to host America’s venerable national Open. Erin Hills is in Erin, Washington County, Wisconsin about 55 miles north of Milwaukee and was originally opened in 2014. It sits on 652 pristine acres that were once the mid-west farmlands that once helped feed a nation and now are 18 holes of links golf that would make its namesake proud.
Originally built by Wisconsin developer Bob Lang, whose obsession to host the Open led to several costly changes to the layout (based on the advice of the USGA) and ultimately resulted in him having to sell the course. In 2009, Andrew Ziegler bought the course and began making additions and upgrades of his own (there are no carts allowed there) to complete the masterpiece you see today.
The USGA traditionally reveres a score of par and loves to present the best players in the world with the most diabolical test (often times going over the edge) in championship golf.
They most certainly didn’t get what they wanted after Thursday’s first round. Playing from a U.S. Open record length of 7,800+ yards, the players took full advantage of rains that had softened the greens and fairways that were twice the width of a normal U.S. Open venue.
44 players would best par on day 1 led by 28-year old American star Rickie Fowler who tied a U.S. Open record for opening rounds with a flawless 7-under par 65 that gave him a one shot advantage over England’s Paul Casey and unheralded American, Xander Schauffele.
Two more Americans, Brian Harman and Books Koepka and another Englishman, Tommy Fleetwood were a further stroke back at 5-under.
The day was not without its share of casualties as the game’s hottest player, Jon Rahm, stumbled to a 4-over 76, world #1 and defending champion Dustin Johnson a 75 and world #3, Jason Day a disastrous 79 that included two triple bogies.
All three players would miss the cut. In fact, 8 of the world’s top 12 players would not be around for the weekend. At the halfway point, the top 18 players on the leaderboard had never won a Major Championship.
That group was headed up at 7-under par by a quartet of players; Casey, Harman, Fleetwood and Koepka. Casey’s round included a triple-bogie 8 on the par-5 14th hole followed by 5 consecutive birdies en route to a 1-under par 71.
A stroke behind the leaders were Fowler, and fellow Americans Jamie Lovemark and J.B. Holmes. One behind them were Schauffele, Amateur; Cameron Champ, Brandt Snedeker, newly minted Players Champion Si Woo Kim and Hideki Matsuyama who had matched Fowler’s day 1 65 to vault into contention.
69 players made the cut which was at one over par equaling the lowest cut in history (Winged Foot in 1990). With only 8 shots separated first to last, anyone of those competitors would have a chance to win heading into the weekend. “Moving Day” promised to be exactly that.
And was. The first player to come out of the pack was American Patrick Reed who would match the week’s best rounds with a 65 of his own to finish with a share of the lead at 8-under as he walked off the 18th hole.
His share of the lead was short lived. Fellow American, Justin Thomas shot a round for the ages with a flawless 9-under par 63 to record the lowest round to par in U.S. Open history (Johnny Miller’s third round 63 in 1973 was 8-under). The budding 24-year superstar has already won three times this year on Tour but it is always a nearly impossible thing to follow a round like this with another quality 18 and it would have to be in the final round of the U.S. Open.
The leader after the third round though would be 30 year-old lefty (no left handed player has ever won the U.S. Open) Harman who fashioned a 5-under par 67 to hold the overnight lead at 12-under. The diminutive Harman (he is generously listed at 5 ft. 7 ins.), who plays with a chip on his shoulders, is a two time winner on the PGA Tour and one of the game’s best putters. Until this week his best performance in a Major Championship had been a tie for 27th in the 2014 Open Championship.
Joining Thomas at 11-under were Koepka and Fleetwood who matched each other with 4-under 68’s. Fowler was one behind them at 10-under after a well thought out 68 of his own and Kim was a shot adrift of Fowler at 9-under, with the day’s secret handshake score; 68.
Reed would enter Sunday’s final round in a tie for 7th place with Russell Henley and Charley Hoffman. It now seemed that the winner would come from one of these 10 players and become the seventh consecutive first time Major winner.
A different Erin Hills greeted the field on Sunday as the course had begun to dry out and wind gusts of over 25 mph presented a much more difficult test. After the opening 9, two players had separated themselves from the rest. Harman continued to be unruffled and gained a shot to par to make the turn at 13-under leaving him one behind Koepka whose bogey-free 33 put him at 14-under.
When the unflappable Harman flapped with back-to-back bogies on the 12th and 13th holes, a suddenly relevant Matsuyama was carving out the day’s best score. The 24-year old Japanese star made birdies on both his closing two holes to shoot the day’s best score of 66 and finish at 12-under.
But that fire was almost immediately snuffed out by Koepka whose trifecta of birdies on 14-16 left him 4 ahead with 2 to play in what was to become a coronation. For the 27-year old Floridian, the final steps of his world-wide journey were a so well deserved reward for all the roads that he has travelled http://www.birdgolf.com/year-early/ .
Koepka made three closing pars to finish at 16-under and tie another U.S. Open scoring record (with Rory McIlroy’s triumph at Kiawah in 2012) and etch his name into the mix of pantheons in the modern game.
Harman would tie Matsuyama (one has to think that this brilliant player’s time will come) as the runners-up, 4 strokes behind and lay claim to a host to of new admirers for his gritty play. But this was a brook that no-one could pass. It was a performance worthy of a storied champion but only time will see if that comes true.