Bunker mentality: Erin Hills will be a different kind of U.S. Open challenge

It should be hereIf you play the same course all the time – either you’re a member, or you just like it, or both – that’s great. But don’t you get a little charge out of tackling a new layout?

I sure do.

That’s why watching the U.S. Open this week will be extra special. While I never get tired of watching the pros take on the historic courses, such as Pebble Beach and Oakmont, it will be fascinating to see what they do to Erin Hills this week – or, more to the point, what it does to them.

Everything I’ve read about the Wisconsin wonder sounds interesting. Don’t be fooled by the relatively wide fairways and flat greens. This is going to be brutal in many other ways.

Mainly, I can’t wait to see what the bunkers are like. There are 138 of them – that’s almost eight per hole. But this is not a numbers game. It’s a case of counting the fingers.

Specifically, the bunkers have odd shapes and crooked little fingers that in some cases will make it virtually impossible to aim at the hole. This will be more like the pot bunkers in Scotland, just not as deep.

The comparisons to the famous links courses were inevitable, given the fescue, the windswept terrain and the lack of trees, but the USGA is quick to remind us that it’s not a links course. It’s a heartland course, which is a cross between parkland and links. Impress your friends with that piece of knowledge.

I hope the winning score is over par. I hope the pros rail about how unfair it is or how it’s set up. This might be the best part of all with the Open.

At the risk of sounding sadistic, I take personal joy in watching such great players look a little foolish once in awhile — in other words, looking like the rest of us. There’s nothing interesting about watching one of those off-week tournaments where the winning score is 25-under and all they do is bomb a drive, feather a wedge and make a short putt.

Watching the U.S. Open is like watching an accident, but no property is damaged except maybe a few of the pros’ clubs and almost certainly their egos.

What makes it even better is the dichotomy of the U.S. Open leaderboard. We’re so used to wondering whether the field can catch the leader by making a few birdies; at the Open, the fascination is in whether the leader can avoid disaster.

And now we have another piece of drama this week: the weather and Phil Mickelson.

Thunderstorms are in the forecast for Erin Hills every day except Sunday. Mickelson, who has decided to attend his daughter’s high school graduation this week, possibly at the expense of again pursuing his first U.S. Open title, said Sunday that he needs a four-hour rain delay to be able to fly in for his Thursday tee time.

But it gets even better than that: He’s never played the course. Never. He said he’s going to be relying on his longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, if the weather cooperates and he’s able to get there. He’ll be just like those of us who walk onto the first tee of a course we’ve never seen and have to figure it out – although we don’t have a top caddie shepherding us.

How cool would it be if Mickelson actually won? Wouldn’t that be one of the greatest U.S. Open stories ever? I’ve never rooted harder for bad weather to hit a golf course. Heck, let’s rain out Thursday’s play completely, just to be sure Phil can be in the field.

(And, by the way, I fully support his decision to put his family first. Now there’s a guy who has his priorities straight. I’m also glad the school didn’t move the ceremony just for him. Golf is great, but it takes a back seat in this case.)

Even if Phil isn’t able to play, it still figures to be a week to remember. Maybe we should celebrate by picking out a course we haven’t played and finally giving it a shot. We don’t need a four-hour delay. We just need an adventurous spirit and a desire to keep learning about the game we love.


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