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U.S. Open 2017: 10 things to watch for at Erin Hills

The U.S. Open can be golf’s most entertaining mess. Here are 10 things (and players) to watch for going into the 117th edition at Erin Hills.

Although the host USGA is trying to get away from it, for years the U.S. Open has marketed itself as “the toughest test in golf.” Whether you love it or hate it, it’s unique and has its own strong to quite strong identity. There will be frustration, yelling, anger, absurd drives, exquisite shots, and a major champion. Here are 10 things to watch and know for this week’s 117th edition at Erin Hills in Wisconsin.

Mad About Grass

The always entertaining wall-to-wall coverage of some course feature or controversy has centered around the high fescue grasses of Erin Hills this week. We always get something every U.S. Open, whether it’s the debate over “native sandy areas” at Pinehurst, wrecked greens at Chambers Bay, and now this in Wisconsin. It’s hilarious to watch, if you just keep a little perspective.

Kevin Na, of all people, ignited this year’s controversy on Sunday, when he posted an Instagram video ranting (maybe half-jokingly) about how thick the fescue was just off the fairways here.

There’s fescue at British Opens and other American venues, but what made this different was how dense it was just off the fairway. It was basically a hazard — you’d struggle to find your ball and if you did, you might not be able to hit it more than a couple feet. The best case scenario was a hack out into the fairway maybe 40 yards or so. There was also the legitimate problem of the fescue being the most dense just off the fairway and thinner farther off of it — rewarding those who actually hit a worse shot that was more off line and into the thinner stuff.

So this grass became the talk of the championship and the USGA made it even more of a drama on Tuesday when they just started removing huge chunks of it while players were out practicing. It looked like a pretty significant alteration just 36 hours before the championship started.

The USGA was adamant that this was part of a “prescribed plan” of maintenance and not some reaction to Na and other players saying it was too much. They cited heavy rains early in the week making it “lay down” and become even more dense.

So that led to a reaction to the reaction, with Rory McIlroy being the most vocal. Rory’s biggest issue was that these are the widest fairways — 60 yards in many spots — in the history of the U.S. Open and if you can't hit them, maybe you deserve to lose your ball or go into that stuff. And if you’re mad about it, you should go home.

In the end, the USGA removed chunks of the fescue and mowed it back on four holes. But the move looked panicky so close to the start of the major and that combined with player social media complaints to give us a big ol’ grass controversy that sucked up all the oxygen of the practice round days.

So be on the lookout for players trying to play out of that stuff and hollering about it when they do.

Air Phil 1

Unfortunately, it looks like Phil Mickelson is not going to make it to the U.S. Open. Phil said he needed a four-hour delay on Thursday in order to get from his daughter’s high school graduation to Wisconsin before his tee time. Thursday looks like the only definitively clear weather day, with a 0 percent chance of rain until late afternoon. So Phil will not even board his private jet to try and make the mad dash to Erin Hills, which is a real shame — tracking Air Phil 1 all Thursday was going to be so much fun.

Phil’s unlikely arrival means this will be the first major without Mickelson or Tiger Woods since the 1994 Masters. We’ve accepted this “young” crop of superstars — Rory, Spieth, DJ, Day, Rickie, Hideki — as the changing of the guard awhile ago. But that’s a narrative you’re going to get this week with Tiger and Phil officially off the premises.

Pace and Space

The fescue may be a cause of what will become interminably long rounds. When players hit into it, it’s going to take time to find the ball or they will exhaust the allotted time they’re allowed to look before giving up and having to play another one. And if they do find it, they’re not going to advance it far and we’re going to be adding shots and adding time. This is also a course meant to be played in the wind, and if it’s up and blowing the way the USGA didn’t expect, then that’s going to add a ton of time too.

But that’s just a part of what will make these long rounds. A U.S. Open is always slow and deliberate — it’s the “toughest test” for a reason and players always take an extra mental beat before playing a shot. This Erin Hills property, however, is going to make the physical challenge a demand too and probably have everyone moving a little slower.

Players on the ground are saying this may be the longest and most demanding walk they’ve had at a U.S. Open. Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN called the place “too big” on Wednesday.

The biggest issue is the walk from green to tee, some of which are 200 yards. The course is extremely hilly and about an 8.5-to-9-mile walk — an average pro round is usually in the 6-mile range. Justin Thomas measured that he took almost 20,000 steps during one of his practice rounds.

Now, you might scoff at theses millionaires having to walk a bit more and that’s fine. But play a U.S. Open at the same time in June heat and the 9-mile walk becomes a little different. And it’s going to slow things down — the USGA is allotting 4 hours and 52 minutes for threesomes the first two days. If that’s what they’re hoping for, expect rounds well in excess of five hours.

Rahmbo

A trendy pick to win this week is Jon Rahm. While he might not be the most mainstream name, it’s not exactly a long shot. The 22-year-old is likely the next superstar in golf and absolutely has a major in his future, and real soon. This time last year, he was winning low amateur honors at Oakmont. Now as a pro, he’s already worked his way into the top 10 in the world rankings, which is an astoundingly fast rise.

Rahm has the full 14-club game, but he’s been strongest tee-to-green this year. He’s second on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, third in SG off-the-tee, and second in SG total. Rahm is a world-class player and a big personality, too. One of those facts you’ll hear every single broadcast to fill up the profile will be that the Spaniard learned English at Arizona State by listening to rap records.

So familiarize yourself with Jon Rahm. This venue sets up well for him and he’s a talent that will soon, if not already, be joining the cadre of DJ, Spieth, Rory, Day, and other more recognizable superstar names.

“Kettle Moraine”

The U.S. Open always bashes us over the head with some new word or term of art that we hear all week during the wall-to-wall coverage. Expect to hear a lot over these next four days about the Kettle Moraine, the geological name for this land formed by the collision of two glaciers. The “natural land movement” (another term you’re hearing a lot) is spectacular and should provide the players with lots of sloping and uneven lies, a different kind of test that maybe the modern player is not used to so much. The course architects hardly moved any dirt and relied on this natural topography. It’s visually stunning when a camera is able to capture the rolling terrain, which also apparently occurs within bunkers, too.

So if you want to sound informed, or like an enormous dork, throw Kettle Moraine out there when watching with friends this week.

Is Rory ready?

This is Rory McIlroy’s best chance for a U.S. Open win since his 2011 runaway at Congressional. It’s all right there for him. It’s a long course, but wide enough to let him use the biggest weapon in his bag, the driver, as much as you’ll ever see at a U.S. Open. The rains that have pounded Erin Hills during practice days also play right into his hands. He admitted as much, saying he definitely wasn’t crying when he saw storms roll in on Monday. He’s also been adamant that he “loves” the course, which is usually half the battle at a U.S. Open, where players often psych themselves out of the tournament before they ever hit a competitive shot.

A long, soft course is where McIlroy thrives, hitting the high ball and making it stick right on top of the flag. Those were the exact conditions that led to his dominant 2011 U.S. Open win, which set records.

So he loves the course, the conditions are perfect, and the setup gives his biggest “skill,” as he will remind you is the word to describe his driving power, a huge advantage. What could go wrong? We’ve not seen much of Rory this year, and when we have, he’s been aggravating a rib injury that’s bothered him since January. He’s played just once since the Masters and in that event, The Players, he told us immediately he was having a back problem. Some argued he should have withdrawn but McIlroy played through all four rounds, got a scan, and then skipped every tournament between then and this week.

His former Ryder Cup captain and Irish friend, Paul McGinley, says he’s too rusty and not healthy enough to win this week. Rory insists there are no limitations on his swing. Given how the setup plays into his strengths, and the fact that we’re already without Phil and Tiger, here’s hoping Rory is full-go over four days at Erin Hills.

Rules drama

I want more rules drama. I need more rules drama.

The talking point coming into the championship was that the USGA needs a “clean week” after the mess of the prior two years. Chambers Bay had “broccoli” greens that they made almost unplayable and Oakmont’s final round became a circus when we didn’t know what Dustin Johnson’s actual score was and if he’d been assessed a penalty.

The USGA is the keeper of the rulebook in golf, and yet last summer they tripped over themselves multiple times in figuring out how to assess penalties in high-profile moments. This year, they announced a change in how they set up their rules folks, with each group no longer getting a walking rules official for all 18 holes. Instead, an official is assigned a stationary spot on the course and responsible for a couple holes that he or she can hopefully master.

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be controversies or contentiousness. It’s never fun for the USGA or the players, but for everyone watching from afar, it’s always entertaining. Remember Twitter last year when DJ played the back nine not knowing his actual score? We need some rules drama.

A DJ Defense

Ben Hogan and Curtis Strange are the only players in history to go back-to-back at the U.S. Open. For many of the same reasons noted above with Rory, this course is a perfect setup for Dustin Johnson to join that exclusive club. And it’s not like he’s receded since he won at Oakmont a year ago — he’s only gotten better. This will be his first major as world No. 1 after an unfortunate tumble at the Masters took him out of a tournament where he was the heavy favorite and gunning for his third straight win.

Going back-to-back is really hard, but DJ’s the favorite this week again for a reason and it would not be a surprise at all to see him holding the trophy again on Sunday.

The Players v. The USGA

No championship is more tense than the U.S. Open. The players simply don’t like the host organization and are now going on the record about it often. Just on Wednesday, Brendan Steele threw out this subtle jab to Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner.

Not so at the U.S. Open, which is always rife with controversy and vitriol.

“And usually for good reason,” Brendan Steele said. “The USGA makes a lot of mistakes.”

During last year’s rules mess, Rory called the USGA “amateur hour,” Jordan Spieth said it was a joke, Rickie Fowler tagged them using words like “ridiculous” and “laughable.” That memorable screw up just seemed to bring out what had been a quiet and seething player distaste for the USGA.

It’s a mix of factors — the tricks they’ve played with course setup, rules issues, perhaps money, as Geoff Shackelford noted on his podcast this week that players are mad not enough of the billion dollar deal between FOX and the USGA is coming their way.

At the start of the month, Adam Scott was happy to take a shot and we weren’t even at Erin Hills yet. “If their major pinnacle event for them requires courses to be the way they are then it doesn’t set a good example for every other bit of golf that they try to promote.”

This is a much more public spat now and one the USGA reportedly is trying to quell with better communication. But it’s juicy fun for us and absolutely something to watch for all week at Erin Hills. The USGA will take some body blows.

Tracer Time

The U.S. Open has become the Super Bowl of ProTracer, that shot tracking technology that everyone loves and has changed golf coverage. FOX’s Shane Bacon likened it to the first-down line in football. But the cost and nature of a golf broadcast spread out over 18 holes has made it hard to have ubiquitous tracer, which is what the people often want and demand.

FOX will have either ProTracer or their own tracking technology (the side-by-side screen with the live-arc of a shot from an overheard map of the hole) on all 18 holes. They also get tracer out there in the fairway for approach shots too.

FOX is not out on the PGA Tour each week like -- this is their one big golf event and they pour everything they have into it.

The coverage was a mess in their first year at Chambers Bay, but the problems seemed correctable and and big pile of smaller issues (except for one big Shark). Oakmont was a massive improvement and this year should be even crisper. I can’t wait to watch hours and hours of it over the next four days.