Sport Golf

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Dermot Gilleece: A home from home for sons of Erin

Windswept Wisconsin heathland looks ideally suited to McIlroy-led Irish challenge at US Open

Rory McIlroy has a decidely mixed record at the US Open. Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP
Rory McIlroy has a decidely mixed record at the US Open. Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP

Dermot Gilleece

There is understandable concern that the US Golf Association should get things right this time around. In fact it is vital for an organisation crucial to the administration of the game that the 117th US Open at Erin Hills, starting on Thursday, goes off without a significant hitch.

This is against the background of the mess they made of preparing another new venue, Chambers Bay, for the 2015 event, and their appalling handling of a rules decision affecting the eventual champion, Dustin Johnson, at Oakmont last year.

Though serious damage to the image of the Seattle resort may take years to heal, Oakmont's controversy was rectified by the swift introduction of a local rule in conjunction with the Royal and Ancient. Now, a ball at rest on the green that is accidentally moved by the player can be replaced without penalty.

Ireland's four challengers this week, Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, Graeme McDowell and qualifier Paul Dunne, should feel at home on a windswept course which is expected to be firm, fast and flexible. In a state more noted for its German settlers, the honour of staging Wisconsin's first US Open has gone to a small rural town named Erin and a public course where the Irish pub overlooks the first tee.

In these parts, we would probably describe its dramatically crumpled landscape as classic heathland. There's no water, no trees of any consequence and the relatively small, bent-grass greens are expected to be almost as fearsome as Oakmont's were 12 months ago. And at 7,800 yards, it will be the first US Open venue with a par of 72 since Pebble Beach in 1992.

As an unwanted blessing, defending champion Johnson went there last weekend after missing the cut in the Memorial Tournament, won by Jason Dufner. But Phil Mickelson is a notable absentee from a challenge that has proved to be cruelly elusive over the years. Instead, he will be attending the high-school graduation of his 18-year-old daughter Amanda, who was born in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 US Open in which Mickelson was runner-up to Payne Stewart at Pinehurst.

Of the all-round skills desirable at this level, conservative putting seems to pay the richest dividend. Which is why Jack Nicklaus won it four times. The Bear recently recalled that while his great rival Arnold Palmer made more birdies than he did, he also had more three-putts.

Over five rounds of the 1962 US Open, which Nicklaus won after a play-off, Palmer had 11 three-putts against one for the Bear. "Arnold was more aggressive, but I didn't like testing my nerves with lengthy second putts," said Nicklaus.

Five years later at Baltusrol, where IBM provided statistics for the first time, Nicklaus famously borrowed a painted putter known as 'White Fang' and shot 62 on the Wednesday to win a bet of $15 from Palmer. Curiously, Palmer took fewer putts than Nicklaus in the championship with 127 against 130, but was still beaten into second place by four strokes. Greens in regulation proved to be the key difference.

Lowry did most things right for 54 holes at Oakmont, where a weather-affected third-round 65 - he played 22 holes on the Sunday - gave him a four-stroke lead and his best chance of winning a Major title. Which explained his bitter disappointment after a closing 76 pushed him back into a share of second place, three strokes behind Johnson. "It's not easy to get yourself in a position like I got myself in today," he said afterwards. "It was there for the taking and I didn't take it."

It was clearly a struggle for much of an afternoon that delivered only one birdie - on the long 12th. And Lowry was ultimately undone by successive bogeys on the 14th, 15th and 16th caused mainly by poor approach play.

The fact that he had previously been tied ninth at Chambers Bay suggests that US Open conditions suit his short-game skills. And there was clear evidence of revitalised putting over his five closing holes at Muirfield Village last Sunday, which he covered impressively in two under par.

McIlroy's return to action after a second spell recovering from rib damage will be viewed with particular interest on the far side of the Atlantic. This will be his ninth US Open challenge, having missed the cut at Oakmont last year. In fact he has amassed a decidedly mixed record in the event, given two other missed cuts in 2010 and 2012, on either side of a glorious triumph at Congressional.

Padraig Harrington's disappointment at failing to qualify for his first US Open since 2013 would have turned by now to acute frustration had he got there. In the event, he will be out of action for another week due to a nasty elbow injury sustained from the wild swing of an amateur pupil during a company day in Washington after the Memorial.

Meanwhile, indications are that the course will suit McIlroy's long driving. There is also the expectation, however, of a large percentage of missed greens, placing obvious emphasis on chipping and pitching. On his game, McIlroy's execution of these shots is as good as the best, but this is an area most susceptible to rust, even during a relatively short time out of action.

One can imagine USGA executive director Mike Davis having several sets of digits crossed in the build-up to this, his latest undertaking. And the omens are not all bad. Prior to Chambers Bay, he earned deserved praise for a new-look Pinehurst No 2, where Martin Kaymer prospered on a celebrated stretch stripped of a serious amount of trees and undergrowth. To his credit, Davis no longer seems to be hamstrung by the USGA's almost manic obsession with par. Indeed the first four finishers broke par at Oakmont last year, where Johnson was four under at the top of the leaderboard. So, instead of imposing an artificial par of 70 as his predecessors liked to do, Davis will have Erin Hills as an orthodox 72.

He even went so far as to predict: "If there's no wind for four days, which would be highly unusual, they'll definitely shoot lower scores. These greens are so good, players are going to make putts. But listen, at the end of it, contrary to what so many think, we're not after a certain winning score. What we really are after is to see if we can set the golf course up in such a way that tests every aspect of the game."

We know that whatever the conditions, tournament professionals will make birdies on par-fives, no matter how long they are. As it happens, the four at Erin Hills are all in excess of 600 yards, with the opening hole a relatively moderate 608, compared with the finishing par-five of 663. No drive and mid-iron there, as was the case recently on Wentworth's 18th.

While resisting the temptation to think of committees and camels, the course has an appealing look as the creation of three designers - architects Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, along with Ron Whitten, architecture editor of Golf Digest.

The dramatic site, called Kettle Moraine, was apparently shaped by glacial movements, bringing to mind Johnny Miller's famous description of the singles confrontation of Nick Faldo and Curtis Strange in the 1995 Ryder Cup as like "watching two glaciers at work".

Reigning champion Johnson has had an unhappy season so far. The world No 1 had to withdraw from the Masters having hurt his back in a fall in his rented Augusta house a few days beforehand. And he missed the cut at Memorial last week, due largely to a first-round 78 in which he failed to card a birdie for the first time since August 2013.

"I can play left-handed and feel like I can make a birdie," he claimed acidly in the build-up to his bid to become the first player since Strange in 1989 to successfully defend the US Open title. His Memorial form represented quite a comedown for a player whose soaring 190-yard six-iron to within four feet of the 72nd pin at Oakmont 12 months ago made for one of the finest closing birdies in a Major in recent decades.

'DJ' is a seriously cool dude, which is sometimes explained by the notion that he's not the sharpest tool in the shed. Either way, those magnificent, power fades of his are a joy to behold.

Prior to last year's breakthrough, the 32-year-old had several near-misses at Major level, including the 2010 PGA, the 2011 Open Championship and the 2015 US Open. By his own admission, however, the one that "stung the most" was the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, where he squandered a three-stroke 54-hole lead over the eventual winner, McDowell. "I wasn't, like, mad - just more disappointed in my play," he said. "I got a little rattled and kind of just started going really fast. So it was a good learning experience."

Finally, when asked last week about having his brother Austin as caddie, he replied with a knowing grin: "I figured he could handle carrying the bag and stepping off numbers and stuff. He's fairly intelligent. And it's not rocket science." And how was his game compared with 12 months ago? "Not really much different," came the laconic reply.

One imagines more than the odd mention of the emigrant's ballad Come Back to Erin as this week progresses. And what better than a third Irish triumph in America's blue riband to provide an appropriate resonance?

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