What we learned at Erin Hills: Will Fowler and Matsuyama get a better chance?

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Reflecting on the week at Erin Hills, which saw Brooks Koepka become the seventh successive first-time major winner while Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama's wait goes on...

Rickie Fowler and Hideki Matsuyama come up (just) short

If these two, or indeed the golfing world in general, had known two years ago that the next seven majors would be claimed by first-timers then Messrs Fowler and Matsuyama could have been forgiven for liking their chances. Yet here we are halfway through the 2017 major season and they remain incomplete.

At Erin Hills, it wasn’t for the lack of trying – they could hardly have been closer. Yet the flip side is they will rarely have a more obvious chance in a week when the likes of McIlroy, Johnson, Day and Spieth were nowhere to be seen.

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While Fowler started at breakneck speed then treaded water for much of the final 54 holes, Matsuyama laboured to an opening 74 then charged through the field. His closing 66 was a best-of-the-day effort  but it wasn’t enough to thwart Brooks Koepka’s final-day procession.

Of the two, it is surely Fowler who has greater cause for concern. He has failed to capitalise on strong starts at a number of majors now.

Still, if they are beginning to wonder if and when their time will come, they need look no further than Sergio Garcia for inspiration.

There is no Big 3 or Big 4 or big anything

US Open Jordan Spieth

How can there be when the last major winner who had previously won a major was Zach Johnson at St Andrews in 2015? That’s two years ago now. It’s close to three years since Rory McIlroy won his fourth and most recent major, two years since Jordan Spieth won his second, while Dustin Johnson and Jason Day only have one each in total.

In short, it’s premature to call any of them apart from McIlroy great – and the Northern Irishman is not exactly finding golf plain sailing right now.

Of the four, only Spieth made the cut at Erin Hills and he was never threatening to be in contention. That doesn’t suggest to me a group who are a cut above the rest.

Par 72 = more birdies than Par 70

US Open Erin Hills leaderboard

The thing about stating the obvious, as a wise man once said to me, is that you’re very rarely wrong. I make no apology for raising this point again, though, because it seems to be largely forgotten. People will say that Erin Hills did not present a ‘typical US Open challenge’, for better or for worse.

What they often mean by that is that the winner finished double-digits under par. But you can take eight shots off that straightaway to reflect Erin Hills’ par of 72 versus the routine US Open offering of 70. Suddenly, it all looks a bit more usual.

You give these boys four par 5s a day and the leaders are always going to shoot under par. Limit them to two and it’s a different story. As it happened, the 54-hole lead this year was a total one higher than last year at supposedly impossible Oakmont, two lower than Chambers Bay and two higher than Pinehurst.

Erin Hills: Neither brilliant, nor awful

US Open Erin Hills 9th

In this world of instant judgments on what’s right and wrong, my verdict on Erin Hills is: inconclusive. Let’s start with the good bits. I like the design principle of a big modern bear of a course that offers an array of choices in terms of teeing grounds and landing areas. I welcome the fact that it is distinctive and has its own personality.

The relatively low scoring (see above) was, I think, inevitable in the circumstances. The USGA were rightly cautious with the course set-up given the controversy their role has attracted in the two most recent US Opens (broccoli greens in 2015; the DJ rules controversy last year). It was no reflection on Erin Hills, which, to its credit, could have been set up anywhere between unplayable and a birdie-fest.

The nod to links golf is endearing but, ultimately, frustrating. I know they’ve had a lot of rain is Wisconsin, but this course was an entirely different colour. You can’t and don’t have links courses with greens that are on the top of hills and the run-off areas were seriously lacking in subtlety.

That’s because the challenge of a links course comes less from extreme contours than the fact the ball wants to move on the ground. As Darren Clarke observed when the wind got up on the last day (and I paraphrase) it was like a links in that you could flight it low off the tee to counter the wind but at Erin Hills you also needed to send your approach shots in high.

That’s not links, in fact it’s not even close. To be accurate, it’s 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean. And we haven’t even got to the eponymous ‘hills’. You don’t often see those on a links course.

I also think the green contours are a little severe. once you shave them down to US Open speed then there are just very few pin positions, despite the acreage.

In conclusion, it didn’t become the story of the championship, either for better or for worse. And that’s probably a good thing.

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