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Erin Go Par

The 117th U.S. Open, played on a breathtaking course in Wisconsin's dairyland, will test players like never before
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TELL GRANDPA he's watching the right channel. Yes, the course is treeless, windswept and hilly, with wide fairways framed by long, bowing fescue rough. But, no, this isn't a rerun of an old British Open. He's watching the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a rugged, 11-year-old inland public course (with a $280 green fee) in Wisconsin's working countryside, 35 miles and a world away from downtown Milwaukee.

Erin Hills was built on 600 acres of fertile farmland. Its three architects cleared out nearly every tree, got their bulldozer drivers drunk (no, not literally) and created a golfing playground that is vast in every way. (All stretched out, the course can play more than 7,800 yards.) This is a verdant ball-in-the-air American course built on heavy brown dirt. Most of the greens are elevated, and the goal is to fly the ball to the hole. At a British Open, players often bounce shots into the green, and they might not hit driver three times in a round. At Erin Hills, guys will hit drivers all day long.

But no matter what distance Erin Hills plays, wind, not length, is her main defense. It can come out of the northwest one day and the southeast the next. The players will walk almost six miles during rounds that will approach six hours, and some of the to-the-mountaintop, green-to-tee jaunts will leave them sucking for air.

Dustin Johnson, the insanely long defending champion, visited Erin Hills early this month and over a dinner in the fieldstone clubhouse changed the conversation from fast boats and fine wine to tell his table, "This course is big." There was awe in his tone, which was noted by his fellow diners because Dustin Johnson doesn't do awe.

The USGA needs a good U.S. Open. The last Open-for-the-ages came in 2008, when Tiger Woods defeated Rocco Mediate in a 19-hole playoff at Torrey Pines. The six after were fine, but not compelling.

Then in 2015, and again last year, the Open was overwhelmed by oddities. In '15, Jordan Spieth beat Johnson at Chambers Bay, a course near Tacoma, Wash., that looked spectacular on TV but was mocked by some players for its awkwardness and derided by many more when the greens turned to overcooked broccoli (mushy and bumpy) on the weekend. The final act was Johnson's three-putting from 12 feet to lose by a shot. What a note to go home on.

Last year, at Oakmont, outside Pittsburgh, the green speeds were borderline ridiculous given the severity of their slopes, and Johnson won despite a one-shot postround penalty after officials deemed he had caused his ball to move on the 5th green. What a note to go home on.

So this one is big, in every way. It's also a mystery. Before the Open, Mike Davis, the USGA's executive director, was both being honest and lowering expectations: "From parking to how the course is going to play, there are really a lot of things we just don't know."

In the privacy of their practice rounds, players made jokes about the country hikes, lamented the rough that will cost them strokes and wondered why the USGA is so damn nasty. It wouldn't be a U.S. Open if the players weren't agitated about something, right? But they were also largely positive about the golf course. "This is nothing like Chambers Bay," Johnson said. "This is a good course."

Tiger Woods is not playing this year, as he rehabs from another back surgery. Mark Loomis, the golf producer for Fox Sports, asked Woods if he would like to work as a guest commentator. Tiger, a three-time U.S. Open champ, all on public courses, would most likely have some interesting insights. But a Woods appearance at Erin Hills is a long shot. Besides, he can always provide his commentary by way of Twitter. That's what he did last year, when he congratulated Johnson for "overcoming that rules farce."

But tournament golf is not about staying home. This week thousands of actual paying golf fans will head to Erin Hills each morning by shuttle bus, rolling along I-this and I-that, past a Dick's Sporting Goods, past a Harley-Davidson factory. Then, with one sudden left turn, the pilgrims will turn off I-41 and onto Holy Hill Road, long and heaving and rural, past a vast cathedral and a small ski hill, past a pub with a deep beer list and a Friday fish-fry, past a place or two where Erin's nocturnal Loch Ness monster—Goatman, with the body of a man and the horned head of a goat—has been spotted, or so some locals claim. And that's where most of the players are, in rented houses in Erin and surrounding Washington County. In the sticks, where Goatman roams. Try sleeping on that.

So this one will be different. The fellas are out of their gated communities, out of their comfort zones, playing the great American championship on a big, unknown heartland course with songbirds at sunrise, lord-knows-what at night and distant flagsticks all day long. This could get intense.

At a British Open, players might not hit driver three times in a round. At Erin Hills, guys will hit driver all day long.

GO FIGURE

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