2017 US Open Preview: Erin Hills (6/13/17)

By Frank Brank @realfrankbrank

The 117th US Open kicks off on Thursday at Erin Hills in Wisconsin. Erin Hills is a links-style course, which means very few trees, if any, tall fescue grass, an “open” course where lighter winds can have bigger impact, lots of bunkers, and large greens leading to long putts. Though the course architects insist Erin Hills is not a links course, we're going to call it a links course because if it quacks like a duck..

Erin Hills will play around 7,800 yards for each day of the tournament, which means the course will favor longer hitters; however, that comes with a caveat that avoiding the fescue grass is of most importance. For reference, Augusta National typically plays 400 yards shorter than this version of Erin Hills. Some players have already complained about the fescue, claiming it is unplayable due to the thickness and length of the grass. The fescue, though, may not play as big as a factor as some players' remarks will lead you to think due to the width of the fairways. In the terms of US Opens, Erin Hills will feature some of the wider fairways compared to previous years.

The number one ranked golfer in the world, Dustin Johnson, comes in as the favorite at +805 (current odds at Pinnacle) as he tries to defend his US Open title. Rory McIlroy (+1315), Jordan Spieth (+1496), Jason Day (+1518), and Jon Rahm (+2107) round out the top five favorites. To no surprise, four of those five golfers rank inside the top 32 golfers in driving distance this season. Spieth, the only golfer outside of the top 32 in driving distance, leads the tour in shots gained on approach shots.

It's easy to jump in to pick Dustin Johnson for this week's winner; he leads the PGA Tour in shots gained from-the-tee and tee-to-green. However, DJ comes in playing his worst golf of his season after peaking before The Masters where he injured himself falling down the stairs of his rental house. Though he's set a high bar by winning three times this season and finishing inside the top six seven times in just twelve tournaments, Johnson missed the cut last week at the Memorial by shooting 74 and 78 to close out two rounds at +8.

The key to this week will be fairways and greens. Due to the openness of links-style courses, the greens typically play slower as high winds can move marked balls around on the green. From players' comments, so far, it seems the greens are smoother than most courses. Thus, the better putters on tour will see their advantage shrink this week as the difficulty level reduces.

With that evaluation, some top golfers to be nervous about this week are Jason Day (43rd in strokes gained tee-to-green), Henrik Stenson (99th), and Brooks Koepka (68th). Some surprising names within the top ten in shots gained from tee to green are Francesco Molinari, Kyle Stanley, Tony Finau, and Kevin Kisner. However, only Kevin Kisner ranks within the top 100 in strokes gained putting this season. Kisner ranks fifth in strokes gained from-the-tee, tenth in strokes gained tee-to-green, and 23rd in strokes gained putting, making him a solid sleeper pick at +5313, effectively 1.8% odds to win, this week.

Patrick Cantlay is another sleeper to watch as he makes his way back towards the top of the golf world after going through a handful of personal tragedies. Cantlay doesn't have current odds at most sportsbooks but ranks ninth off the tee, 17th in tee to green and 28th in putting. A win by Cantlay may be the biggest feel-good story of the year in sports. Cantlay entered the PGA Tour as one of the top amateur golfers before having a few seasons of injury setbacks. As he made his way back to the Tour last season, Cantlay witnessed his best friend, and caddie's, death as he was hit by a car in an intersection.

Long shots do not come without concern as Kisner and Cantlay rank poorly in driving distance off the tee. However, their accuracy should allow them to avoid the fescue grass more frequently than most.

The other top ranked golfers like McIlroy, Rahm, Matsuyama, Thomas, Fowler, and Rose should be expected to play well this week as they all rank within the top 13 in shots gained tee to green. The only worrisome aspect of Jordan Spieth's game, much like Kisner and Cantlay, is his lack of distance and accuracy off the tee which could come into play at the lengthy and potentially windy Erin Hills. Spieth ranks 86th and 123rd, respectively, in those categories.

At a largely non-traditional, unpredictable course like Erin Hills we could see anything from Dustin Johnson's continued dominance off the tee and in the world of golf to an underdog, who does not have odds available from most sportsbooks, take home a well-earned trophy.