Given its newness as a U.S. Open venue, nobody knew exactly how Erin Hills would greet the world’s best players in Thursday’s opening round of the championship’s 117th edition.
Would it be Erin Thrills or Erin Spills?
Thanks to manageable winds and softened conditions, the result of nearly 2 inches of rainfall that fell since Monday on the 652-acre property 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee, it was more of the former.
As long as the competitors could keep their shots out of the gnarly fescue, low scores were possible on the 11-year-old layout. Never mind that the course played a championship-record 7,845 yards (par 72) or that five par-4 holes measured 490 yards or more, more than a quarter of the field (44 of the 156 players) posted an under-par score.
It was the highest number of under-par scores ever produced in a first round, surpassing the 39 registered in 1990 on Medinah (Ill.) Country Club’s No. 3 Course, also a par-72 layout.
The leader of the pack was Rickie Fowler, whose 7-under 65 was the 28-year-old’s lowest score in his 30 major-championship starts. The world No. 8 stood one shot ahead of Paul Casey, of England, and qualifier Xander Schauffele. Casey’s 66 matched his lowest U.S. Open round (2007 at Oakmont) and Schauffele is playing in his first major.
“I prefer a golf course where we can make some birdies, for sure,” said Casey. “I thought it was spectacular. It's got a British Open feel to it. It's going to be incredibly difficult come the weekend, just because we've had the deluge yesterday and the days leading into this. It's pretty benign and receptive. It's not going to last. If the sun shines and the wind blows, it’s going to dry out. It will be treacherous.”
Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood and Brooks Koepka are two strokes back, while the group at 68 includes USA Ryder Cup hero Patrick Reed, Marc Leishman, Kevin Na and Adam Hadwin. The latter tied a championship record with six consecutive birdies, starting on No. 18 and continuing over his second nine until the string ended with a three-putt bogey on the par-3 sixth.
Lee Westwood, 44, and two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, 47, turned back the clock to shoot 69 and 70, respectively. Westwood is considered one of the best players to have never won a major and Els is making his 25th consecutive – and possibly last – start in the U.S. Open. His five-year exemption for winning the 2012 Open Championship concludes this year, and his Official World Golf Ranking has slipped to 401.
“I feel good this week,” said Els, who has been bothered by back and hip maladies. “I've got my trainer here, and I'm feeling a bit better. So I'm feeling really loose. That's been nice. It's nice to play pain-free.”
Because of the record yardage, some might have expected Erin Hills to deliver the shots instead of absorb them. But Round 1 clearly went to the players, especially those who kept their ball out of the fescue.
However, the world’s top 3 players all struggled in various ways. Jason Day, who won the 2015 PGA Championship up the road at Whistling Straits, made two triple bogeys for the first time in his professional career, and needed a birdie on 18 to break 80. Defending champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson saw his round derailed by a double-bogey 7 on the 14th hole after he found the knee-high grass and three-putted. His poor putting led Johnson to card a disappointing 75.
“The golf course – you’ve got to hit it in the fairway,” said Johnson, owner of three victories in 2017. “I hit enough fairways today to shoot a good score. But I've definitely got to roll it better. I'm swinging good, everything feels good, I just need to make more putts here.”
World No. 2 Rory McIlroy, competing for the first time since The Players Championship in mid-May, shot a 78. Jordan Spieth, the 2015 champion, also couldn’t get his flat stick going, compiling 32 putts in his round of 73, eight strokes behind Fowler with a plethora of others in between.
“I thought 7-under was just a phenomenal score,” said Spieth of Fowler’s performance. “The defense of this golf course is hole locations [and wind]. They were tough. And they were tricky. But at the same time, like I said, I had 15 looks at birdie. When you play really well, a lot of times you have eight or nine looks, true birdie looks. So you can definitely go out there and make plenty of birdies, even with the tough hole locations, if you leave the ball in the right spots.”
Fowler was quite pleased to be in his position because good starts in majors haven’t been his modus operandi. His first-round scoring average in eight previous U.S. Opens was 73.5, and he had never broken 70. The other three majors tell a similar first-round story: 72.71 (Masters), 72.57 (Open Championship) and 71.57 (PGA Championship).
Maybe it’s his time. After all, Sergio Garcia broke his 0-for-73 major drought in April by winning the Masters in a playoff over Justin Rose. Phil Mickelson, who officially withdrew on Thursday to attend his daughter’s high school graduation in California, was 33 when he ended his major drought.
Three years ago, Fowler showed promise by becoming the first player to post top-five finishes in all four majors without a victory, including a tie for second in the U.S. Open and The Open Championship.
Fowler arrived at Erin Hills fresh off a missed cut at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn. But he did tie for second in the Memorial two weeks ago, and he won the Honda Classic in March on a challenging layout at PGA National.
Outside of Wisconsin’s own Steve Stricker, Fowler would certainly be a popular champion. On Thursday, he hit 12 of 14 fairways, 15 greens and birdied all of the par 5s. That’s a perfect formula for success.
“Yeah, it was nice,” said Fowler. “You don't get many rounds at the U.S. Open that are stress-free. Just did a good job, knew I needed to drive it well, and from there just able to manage hitting and continuing to swing well and hitting good shots and rolling a couple in.
“There are a lot of really good players out here that haven't won a major,” Fowler continued. “So it would be nice to get rid of that at some point. I'm not saying that this is the week or isn't the week. But I like the way this golf course suits me, and we're off to a good start.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.