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First Round: 5 Things to Watch

June 15, 2017 Erin, Wis. By Dave Shedloski
The moment has arrived for Wisconsin golf fans, as Erin Hills finally takes center stage for the start of the 117th U.S. Open. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The opening round of a U.S. Open exposes a lot of raw nerves, even among the more experienced players. But then again, it's not unusual for a relatively unknown player to make headlines on this day – remember Andrew Landry last year at Oakmont? – as if his inexperience or nothing-to-lose attitude somehow serve as an advantage that propels him up the leader board.

It's difficult to predict what will unfold as the 117th championship gets underway. Erin Hills is barely a decade old and never has hosted the U.S. Open, though it did welcome the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and 2011 U.S. Amateur championships. Eighteen players return from the 2011 Amateur, including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Peter Uihlein, to name a few. So they might have a slight advantage. 

Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, seeks to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to win consecutive U.S. Open titles. But Johnson has had little preparation time after he and his partner Paulina Gretzky welcomed their second son on Monday – he announced the name: River Jones Johnson, during a Wednesday press conference.

Plenty of intrigue awaits. The plot is pregnant with possibilities.

Here are five things you might watch for today:

Low scoring: Erin Hills is still relatively soft from Monday's heavy showers. The fairways are the widest in U.S. Open history. The greens, many of them elevated, won't get crazy fast for fear that balls might move if the wind blows. Add it up and many of the world's best golfers could be poised to post a low number.

Bunker play: Erin Hills doesn't have your run-of-the-mill bunkers that offer uniform lies. Extra care and skill will be needed to play from many of the sandy areas that are free flowing in form with small fingers that result in awkward lies and stances. Creativity will be crucial. So will patience and, many times, prudence. One of the course designers, Dr. Michael Hurdzan, watched a top player struggle to get out of one of the bunkers on 14. He needed four tries. 

Amateurs on the leader board: There are plenty of good ones here at Erin Hills, even with 2016 U.S. Amateur champion Curtis Luck turning pro and foregoing an exemption. Reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Stewart Hagestad is as long off the tee as many of the best professionals and made the cut earlier this year in the Masters. U.S. Amateur runner-up Brad Dalke, fresh off winning the NCAA Division I team title with the University of Oklahoma, is riding high. 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey, like Hagestad, advanced through sectional qualifying. Four-time All-America selection Maverick McNealy of Stanford is playing in his second U.S. Open. Top-ranked amateur Joaquin Niemann already has won two professional events in his native Chile. This is a deep talent pool.

Rory McIlroy: The Ulsterman hasn’t played much this year due to a rib injury and comes to Erin Hills with the accompanying rust. But he loves this golf course and he is exceptionally good at winning wet-weather majors. The 2011 U.S. Open champion will relish the softer conditions of this U.S. Open setup and perhaps blast out of the gates. Remember, the 2011 championship at Congressional was rather soggy and McIlroy set the scoring record at 16 under par and won by eight strokes.

Cheesehead love: While there have been other majors and USGA championships in Wisconsin, this is the first time the state has hosted the U.S. Open, and the fans already have shown their appreciation and support. There are only two Wisconsin natives in the field, and they should draw big galleries. Jordan Niebrugge, of Mequon, has the honor of hitting the first shot of the championship at 6:45 a.m. CDT. Eleven-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker, of Edgerton, who earned his spot via sectional qualifying, plays at 2:20 p.m. with Stewart Cink and Phil Mickelson – if the six-time runner-up can make it in time after attending his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony in California. Phil will need some kind of help from a weather delay. Even if he does arrive on time somehow, it will be that rare occasion when he is not the most popular player in his group.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.