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Sports

Shortest Hole at Longest U.S. Open Course Could Bring Trouble

The old ninth hole is now No. 8, and the Bye Hole is now No. 9.

The flag on the ninth hole blows in the wind during a practice round for the U.S. Open golf tournament Wednesday, June 14, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wisconsin, photo: AP/Morry Gash
6 months ago

ERIN, Wisconsin – One of the many quirks at Erin Hills is what was originally called the Bye Hole — a devilish, downhill par-3 positioned between the old ninth and No. 10. It was initially built to be just for fun and wasn’t supposed to count on the official scorecard.

By the end of the U.S. Open, a lot of these players might wish the course architects had kept it that way.

The old ninth hole is now No. 8, and the Bye Hole is now No. 9. The 135-yard par-3 is what the makers of Erin Hills consider their answer to one of the world’s most picturesque golf holes — the short, downhill seventh at Pebble Beach.

“We didn’t have the ocean, so we put in erosion bunkers,” said writer/architect Ron Whitten, who helped design Erin Hills.

They also designed a rolling, multi-sectioned green that, in places, is near-impossible to hold, along with a tee box on an exposed, wind-swept hill.

As is the case at Pebble Beach, where the seventh measures 109 yards, on most days the shot requires nothing more than a pitching wedge. But where No. 7 at Pebble Beach ranked as the third-easiest hole at the 2010 U.S. Open, No. 9 at Erin Hills is designed to cause more trouble than that.

“Honestly, there are a couple spots where you just do not want to be,” said Garrett Osborn, a onetime regular on the Web.com Tour who qualified for his first U.S. Open this year.

No. 9 has been described — and we’ll keep it just to the printable things — as the shortest par-5 in golf, the hole with the scariest second shot at Erin Hills (if you miss the green on the first) and, as Alex Noren of Sweden said, “a hole where there’s no way you can just hit a decent shot to get on there, you have to hit a super-good shot to have a chance.”

During his practice round Wednesday, Noren tried to simulate what happens if the shot is not “super good.”

He randomly dropped a ball in one of the seven bunkers that surround the severely pitched green. He stepped in, leaned down and took a mighty hack. The ball stayed in. He leaned down again and got it out on the second try, then walked to the ball, picked it up, looked at it and threw it toward the stands. The ball had an inch-long gash just above the Callaway logo from his first failed attempt.

Not that avoiding the bunkers guarantees success. The middle of the putting surface pitches severely right and funnels downhill into a tightly mowed collection area that can leave a tricky flop shot for a second.

“Guys are going to get a little upset with that if the ball hits the middle of the green and it rolls all the way off the green and maybe 10 yards down into a chipping area,” Steve Stricker said. “I think at some point that may need to get a little softened.”

Rain might do that, but during summer in Wisconsin, rain almost always means wind, too, and picking a club while playing downhill with a helping or crossing wind will be hard.

Osborn said he expects more players than not to end up short of the green, in part because the bunkers that guard the back are tougher — filled with uneven lies, uneven distribution of sand and little dimples of scrub and turf that protrude into the traps themselves.

All part of the plan.

“You could have a side-hill lie, a lie that might be in one of those little fingers where you can’t even get the club on the ball,” Whitten said. “You might have a lie where you can’t take the club back. You might have to turn sideways or turn backward.

“But if you were in the water, it’d be even worse.”

No. 9 offers the most extreme example of the architects’ philosophy across the course: Use the natural form of the land to turn bunkers back into hazards.

“They shouldn’t be so cushy and consistent and uniform from hole to hole,” Whitten said.

The bunkering will increase the degree of difficulty on what is already the longest layout in U.S. Open history, at 7,741 yards.

And yet, it’s the shortest hole that could give these players the biggest fits.

“Not super long,” Noren said, “but it’s probably one of the hardest greens I’ve ever seen.”

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