The Loop

Davis' eyes (and notebook) wide open at Erin Hills

August 21, 2011

Mike Davis' excitement was palatable when I talked to him on the phone last Friday, less than a day before his arrival at Erin Hills GC in preparation for this week's U.S. Amateur Championship.

"I can't wait to see it," Davis said. "I remember walking this property when it was nothing more than rolling dunes and nothing had been done to it. Just walking in these fields of fescue. And you could see the holes there."

Indeed, there is likely no championship course in the country Davis has more of an organic attachment to than the public facility some 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee. Davis saw it before its infancy, his passionate words for the property inspiring the original owner, Robert Lang, to build the course in hopes it might one day host the U.S. Open.

That time will come in 2017. But first there's August 2011, when the course is the primary host to the 111th playing of the USGA's oldest championship.

Not surprisingly Davis bristles when hearing the term "guinea pig" used to characterize what's taking place starting Monday. No one associated with the USGA would intentionally do anything to compromise the U.S. Amateur.

At the same time, it's no secret Davis and other USGA officials will use the play of the 312 golfers competing this week to help them better assess Erin Hills as a competitive test before the world's best players come to the course in roughly six years time.

The same occurred a year ago at Washington's Chambers Bay GL, which greeted the amateur game's best in a run up to hosting the 2015 U.S. Open. Hoping to see the course played under firm and fast conditions, Davis perhaps got more than he intended as backed-out fairways and greens during the stroke-play rounds led to grumbling from players and an awkward appreciation from tournament officials as to just how much the fescue could be deprived of water before it was too thirsty.

Don't expect to see the same kind of stress test to happen this week. The style of course, where bouncing the ball on to the greens isn't an option on some holes, is likely to preclude this. More importantly, perhaps, Davis isn't all that interested in seeing how that aspect of the course might play, comfortable with the hybrid bentgrass greens.

"I'm much more curious at Erin Hills on the [setup] tee to green," Davis said. "If we were stupid enough to play it from the tips you could play it at 8,000 yards, which we'll never do [the course is listed at 7,760 but isn't likely to be played that long either]. But what that does allow for is maybe more flexibility than any course I've ever had the opportunity to set up."

Instead, Davis will be paying close attention to fairway widths and contours and as well as tee placements. By influencing the distances players will have on approach shots into certain hole locations, he hopes to assess their viability for 2017.

"What's kind of neat about Erin HIlls is you have some greens and some holes here you can play them with very long and they're receptive to the long shot," Davis said. "Yet on another day, you might play it where you can tuck a hole location in a certain quadrant that you shouldn't he hitting a 4-iron or 5-iron to, you need to be hitting a wedge, a 9-iron or 8-iron."

Since Davis no longer has the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Amateur—a task passed on to Ben Kimball—he will be able to observe more of the action than in year's passed, helping him add to an expansive notebook of commentary about the course.

"In some ways, the answer is all 18," said Davis when asked if there are any holes he's taking particular interest in. "For instance, the [par-5] first hole, in some instances we can make it a three-shotter. I happen to think it's a more interesting hole as a potential two-shotter. So there is some question in my mind where the tee markers go with certain winds to make that happen.

"The second hole," he continued, "is a very short par 4, blind on the tee shot and potentially a blind second shot with this really small green. I'm really curious to say, 'Hey, if the tee marker is moved up enough, what are the guys going to do?' "

The reconstructed 10th hole, a par 5 when the course was first opened in 2006 but converted to a long par 4 within the last year, will have a fairway that's 90 yards wide, claims Davis, because of two different ways to play the hole. "I'm curious what the amateurs will do," Davis said. "If everybody chooses one of the two options, then maybe it doesn't make sense to make the fairway that wide. I'm just curious who something like that will end up playing."

Same with the par-4 15th, a drivable par 4 but one where the tee placement will make all the difference. "If it requires a driver to go for the green, I don't think a PGA Tour player will do it," Davis said. "The odds of making it aren't good enough for the potential problems of not making it. So part of me wants to watch these amateurs to see if we need to make it a 3-wood shot or can driver work."

"I can go on and on," Davis said, and you realize he's not exaggerating. "But you know, I don't have any preconceived notions. I'm just going to let things play out."

Well, none but one.

"The one thing I can tell you is I have zero concerns about the Amateur or the Open that this is a stern enough test," Davis said. "I think it's up to us to make sure it fair and not to hard a test."

Let the week begin.