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Taking the U.S. Open to Erin Hills was a gamble. Here’s what the pros thought.

The lengthy Erin Hills course breaks radically from U.S. Open tradition, but there’s almost universal agreement that the experiment succeeded.
The lengthy Erin Hills course breaks radically from U.S. Open tradition, but there’s almost universal agreement that the experiment succeeded. AP

As this most egalitarian of U.S. Opens rumbles and rolls toward its conclusion, it does so with an eclectic leaderboard, the abundant absence of many of the game’s top players and with almost universal agreement that the Erin Hills experiment has been a success.

U.S. Open Sundays, which traditionally fall on Father’s Day, are bookmarks in the game’s history. How the story ends remains to be seen but it’s been fun so far.

Who imagined that eight of the top 12 players in the world rankings would be cut free after 36 holes – including Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, Nos. 1, 2 and 3, respectively? It’s the first time since the rankings were introduced more than 30 years ago that the top three players missed the cut in the U.S Open.

Yet none of them went away complaining about Erin Hills, only about their inability to play to their potential.

“The golf course is great. I’m a big fan of the place,” McIlroy said.

“I enjoyed the walk. The golf course is really beautiful,” Day said.

Golf purists, of which there are many, prefer their U.S. Opens the way they prefer their Masters. Just like they’ve always been.

Change often comes slowly in golf. Just look at how many of your friends are still wearing pleated shorts and I rest my case.

Taking the national championship to Erin Hills was a gamble by the USGA, which will revert back to more familiar venues such as Winged Foot, Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach once this U.S. Open concludes. But the game has changed and so occasionally should the rotation of host courses for what Arnold Palmer liked to call the National Open.

Fans, players and viewers screamed two years ago when the U.S. Open was played at Chambers Bay and for good reason. Good grass is essential to a good U.S. Open.

There’s no reason to complain about Erin Hills unless you prefer extra starch in your shorts. And there’s nothing wrong with all the birdies that are being made, a result of three nights of rain.

Most years, the U.S. Open has been played on courses where the fairways are as slender as Rickie Fowler’s waistline and the rough is deep enough to hide a basketball. There is also an element of social standing involved with several of the old-money clubs up East trading the U.S. Open among themselves on a regular basis.

It’s at these places that the value of par has been enhanced and it has created the personality of the professional game’s most challenging championship. It’s why golfers, most of them anyway, love the U.S. Open – because it makes the best players in the world squirm.

The U.S. Open doesn’t just turn the screws on course setup. It tightens them all the way then solders them shut. This week, the USGA left the soldering iron at home.

So when the golf world turned northwest of Milwaukee this week and Erin Hills was waiting with its waist-high fescue and 500-yard par-4s, it was a bit like stepping through the looking glass.

It’s a radical departure from many of the traditional U.S. Open sites but in places it’s reminiscent of Shinnecock Hills, where the championship will be played next year. In other spots, it’s reminiscent of Pinehurst No.2, which some players contend had the perfect U.S. Open setup three years ago when Martin Kaymer vanquished the field. Both of those places expanded the U.S. Open model.

Players don’t mind tough if they get fair. So far, Erin Hills has been fair. No place has ever surrendered more under-par scores in the first round than Erin Hills, which measured 7,845 yards the first day. As much as most people would like to see the equipment advancements throttled back so that courses the length of Erin Hills aren’t necessary, there’s no indication that is going to happen.

When the U.S. Open was played at sublime but small Merion four years ago, par was protected but the integrity of a great course was compromised to fight the distances players now hit the ball. At Erin Hills, it feels like there’s all the room in the world to play but the penalty for missing the short grass is severe.

No one was quite sure what they would find when the U.S. Open came to Erin Hills.

What they found was a place worth returning to in the future.

Ron Green Jr. is senior writer for Global Golf Post and a contributor to the Observer.