It is US Open week, that annual festival of shambolic organisation, rules controversy and millionaire golf pro whinging we are all contractually obliged to call “the second Major championship of the year”.
And so we are all off to Erin Hills, a sprawling, wind-blown, fescue-lathered course built on the Mid-Western prairie which will be hosting its first Major championship – first professional golf tournament of any real significance, in actual fact.
Erin Hills was only opened in 2006 and, needless to say, the blue-bloodied membership of the United States Golf Association isn’t overly impressed. The flagship event is surely meant to be staged at flagship venues like Oakmont or Merion or Pebble Beach, where words like heritage and prestige and tradition are tossed around like f-bombs in Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen.
There are a couple of days to go before a ball is struck in anger but so far the only words to be heard around Erin Hills are rough, rough and more rough.
Leading the charge, so to speak, has been one Kevin Na, a work-a-day but relatively successful PGA tour player who was previously “famous” for being slower than a snail hitching a lift on the back of a tortoise. Now he’s “Instagram famous”, courtesy of a short, but angry, video rant on the social media platform in which he throws his ball into the tall fescue that lines and shapes the fairways of Erin Hills.
He then tries (and fails) to hack it back out onto the short stuff. “I just wish they would get together a group of past champions and let them set the course up,’’ he concludes.
Theresa May will kiss Jeremy Corbyn square on the lips before that happens at any tournament staged by the USGA, which tends to view players (and their troublesome opinions) as an inconvenience to be endured during championship week.
Mr Na can post whatever he likes about Erin Hills on Instagram – so can Kim Kardashian, come to think of it. However, the USGA will stage the championship it wants to stage, which is to say a brutal, unlovely endurance test in which mental strength will weigh as heavily as pure talent in determining the final outcome.
Jack Nicklaus used to say he loved to hear other players moaning about conditions at a golf tournament because it meant he didn’t have to worry about beating them, they had already beaten themselves. So I think we can safely assume Kevin Na will not be troubling the engraver come Sunday afternoon.
As for the rest of the field, they are venturing into the unknown. In many ways, Erin Hills presents a typical US Open challenge – it is long and it is tough – but in other ways it resembles nothing so much as a “links” course.
Sure, the rough is especally silly but the fairways are wide as a runway (60 yards in some places) and as fast as tarmac. The wind will blow. The greens are testing but not daft, with their most challenging feature being the run-offs that will feed the marginally errant shot into trouble. The emphasis is on straight driving, and the ability to control distance and flight with the irons.
In other words, it is a fair, all-round test, one that is unlikely to throw up a fluke winner at the end of four days. Only the best in the modern game need apply, which begs the question – who will be the best of the best this week?
Normally, form would be the most reliable indicator. Yet looking down the list of favourites – Dustin Johnson, Rory, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth – there isn’t a name that demands the attention.
The last time DJ was seen in action, at the Memorial tournament, he missed the cut by a mile. Day and Spieth have enjoyed some solid finishes but nothing too flashy, while Rory hasn’t played competitively since the Masters.
Any one of this quartet could find the spark around Erin Hills, but equally they might not. Spieth will surely find the perfectly-rolling greens to his favour but can his driving be relied on? Rory might be able to ball-strike his way into contention but can he convert his chances?
Day has four top-10 finishes in his last four US Opens – a great record, until it’s measured against DJ’s second place at Chambers Bay in 2015 and victory at Oakmont last year. A win by either of these two would hardly rank as a surprise but in an era where parity – or at least an absence of a dominant figure – at the top end of the sport seems to be the defining theme it would perhaps wise to look elsewhere for a potential champion.
Sergio Garcia won his first career major at the Masters in April – a great player who had paid his dues and was finally ready to take the step up onto the pantheon. And to think some people thought he would never win a Major. They used to say the same of Phil Mickelson, and Adam Scott and Justin Rose, who all have their Majors now, and rightly so.
These days, Rickie Fowler is spoken of in the way that those players once were – a great talent, yet one who remains unfulfilled in the only way that the history books record. He is without his Major.
But does anyone genuinely think the moment will never come for a player as good as Fowler – a brilliant ball striker, a courageous putter, a proven winner, a risk taker? The answer is a resounding No.
Of course Fowler will win his Major. His moment will come and it could come at a place like Erin Hills, a course which might not please the Kevin Na’s of this world, but was surely designed with a player like Rickie Fowler in mind.