LAS VEGAS — It was once a cow pasture 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Next week it will be the second-longest piece of real estate ever to host a U.S. Open golf championship.
Welcome to Erin Hills, a public course that just opened in 2006. But is not for your average weekend golfer coming in off the trail. When it hosts its first major it will play to 7,693 yards. That is only two yards shorter than Chambers Bay near Seattle, where Jordan Spieth won two years ago. It is so long that next week’s closing par-5 18th hole can be set up to play 700 yards — with a course max of about 7,800 yards — if the U.S. Golf Association wanted to go diabolical.
The story of Erin Hills is one of the most fascinating development tales in the history of golf. It includes dreams, financial troubles and even murder. Google “history of Erin Hills” and you will find a fascinating read.
As for how it will look to the world’s best golfers, we received an early scouting report from an amateur who played there — and won’t be returning anytime soon. There are no cart paths, and he described the distance from the green to the next tee as “ridiculous.” In other words, bet early and often on the young guns who can drive it a mile and not lose their way putting during this endurance test.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson is the obvious favorite and is down to 4-1 at South Point. However, he missed the cut last week at The Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, and his trouble with the putter is worrisome. But his swing coach Butch Harmon, who lives here in Vegas, dropped by to talk to “My Guys in the Desert” hosts Ron Flatter and Amal Shah this week. He did not share that worry about Johnson.
“He was just a little out of sorts,” Butch said. “It worked out because everything we’ve been doing has been pushing for Erin Hills anyway. So it gave him the weekend off, and he was able to go there and get some good work in there. D.J. said, ‘It’s long, it’s tough, and I love it. It’s made for me.’ When he goes to the first tee he’s going to take his balls in a wheelbarrow. He’s not afraid of anything.”
Johnson also has the fitness to navigate this course. At 32, he is probably the best all-around athlete on the PGA Tour. He was an outstanding baseball player. He could palm a basketball when he was about 7 years old and he can still dunk it. This is going to turn into a grind, and if the putter does not betray him D.J. should be able to win back-to-back Opens.
But if he does not, a scouting report on a youngster like 22-year-old Jon Rahm is worth a look at 15-1 odds at the Westgate. Remember, in less than a year he has moved from 551st in the world all the way up to No. 10.
Then there is the long shot that Butch wagered on — 33-year-old Kevin Kisner, who won just last month at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas.
“This guy is one of the best ball strikers in golf,” Butch said. “I’m going to go put $100 on him myself, and he’s not even one of my guys. He hits the ball far enough to be a factor there, but he drives the ball so good and hits so many greens in regulation. If you want a long shot, that’s a good one.”
Right after Butch put his bet on Kisner at South Point the odds that he will win the Open dropped from 125-1 to 75-1.
Butch is in his 23rd year doing TV for Sky Sports in Britain, so he will be commuting from Milwaukee to Erin Hills, where Fox will have the U.S. coverage. Producer Mark Loomis, who started as my booth spotter at ABC in the early ’90s, should have beautiful blimp shots of a course that features the green beauty of rolling hills where it can get also get a little windy. Since the tournament is in the Midwest, we would not be surprised to see a thunderstorm or two interrupt play.
As a side note, it was really great that Steve Stricker qualified at age 50. When it comes to golfers from Wisconsin, Andy North made his mark winning a couple U.S. Opens, but Stricker won more PGA Tour events than anyone in that state’s history. I hope he is able to make the cut, but at his age I don’t see him being in the mix for the championship.
The same goes for Masters champion Sergio García, who is 25-1 to win next week. At 37, he is another player who falls into the category of probably being a little too old to stand the pressure of walking this course and competing at the level he did at Augusta.
I make the winner under 35, and as long as they stay on the fairways, I will not stray far from Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm — as long as their shots don’t stray too far off the cow pasture.
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Message delivered by the Pittsburgh Penguins in their overwhelming 6-0 destruction of the Nashville Predators on Thursday. But knowing what can happen in the playoffs, don’t be surprised if the Predators regroup at home Sunday night and force a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final back in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Sidney Crosby was absolutely phenomenal in Game 5. When NBC put together a highlight reel of his best moments, he played like a combination of Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. He assisted on half the goals, he pummeled P.K. Subban, and he even had time to fire a water bottle across the ice and convince a ref that it slipped out of his hand as he was taking a swig.
Crosby and the Penguins did what they always do at home to Preds goalie Pekka Rinne. Just look at the difference. In the three games in Pittsburgh he has let in 11 goals on 45 shots for a save percentage of only 75.6. In the two games back home at the Bridgestone Arena he has stopped 50 of 52 shots (96.2 percent). If Rinne can regroup like he normally does in Smashville, then he should petition the NHL to move Game 7 to a neutral site, since the PPG Paints Arena just does not agree with the Finnish keeper.
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Saturday’s Belmont Stakes may not have the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, but that only means it has every opportunity for a long shot to win the race and make some good money for those of us who will be playing it.
One of my guys — South Point sports book director Chris Andrews — spoke to a horseman who told him that J Boys Echo might be able to get the longer distance of the Belmont. I found it hard to ignore that both Chris and the fine New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling like him to win the race. If the odds Saturday are as good as the 15-1 that J Boys Echo was getting this week at the Westgate, I am all in.
The Belmont not only means the end of the Triple Crown season, it also signals the start of a racing summer that will feature the return of Arrogate to the track next month at Del Mar. As long as that world champion continues to take aim on a repeat win this fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic for Bob Baffert, we will be paying attention.