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Prepare to embrace the unknown as Erin Hills makes U.S. Open debut

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McIlroy rips complaints about U.S. Open conditions (1:04)

2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy criticizes the move to adjust Erin Hills based on complaints from players. McIlroy maintains the major is "supposed to be a tough test." (1:04)

ERIN, Wis. -- Rural Wisconsin seems the most unlikely of destinations for the U.S. Open, a tournament that is typically played on America's most historic courses.

Take Oakmont, host of a record nine U.S. Opens and where Dustin Johnson won a year ago, which dates to 1903. Or Shinnecock Hills, which will get its fifth U.S. Open next year and dates to 1891.

Erin Hills, where the 117th U.S. Open begins Thursday and some 45 minutes from Milwaukee, dates all the way back to ... 2006, when it was rare for the United States Golf Association to pick a venue that had not already staged the championship, let alone a brand-new one. In the previous 20 years, it had gone to a first-time U.S. Open course just twice -- and Pinehurst (1999) and Bethpage Black (2002) were known commodities, courses that had hosted the masses for years.

The USGA typically likes the tried-and-true venues, the ones that have withstood the test of time and have the record books to back it up. Erin Hills, which was awarded this tournament in 2010, is unknown, just like Chambers Bay was two years ago -- and the latter didn't go so well in the eyes of many.

So, understandably, there is a good bit of curiosity and consternation about an Erin Hills layout that is spectacular in its scope and size, spread out over 652 acres -- approximately four times more land than a typical American course -- and offering the usual concerns about difficulty.

"It's a very big golf course; it's incredibly long, if you go to the back tees," said Adam Scott of a layout that is listed at 7,693 yards. "But there are so many options on every hole with distance.

"There's a little bit of the unknown, of course, first time here at Erin Hills. A lot has been made of the rough, which is incredibly long, but there's a huge space in between that long rough that we get to hit it."

The tall fescue has been a talking point since players began visiting Erin Hills in recent weeks. Kevin Na posted a video to Instagram on Sunday noting the length and difficulty and how difficult it is to find a golf ball. Lee Westwood had fun with his caddie, Billy Foster, filming him getting lost in the rough.

The rough is really thick this week just off the edge of the fairway! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚#usopen

A post shared by Lee Westwood (@westwood_lee) on

Whether it was a reaction to some of the conversation about it or simply part of the maintenance plan all along, the fescue was cut on four holes Tuesday. USGA president Diana Murphy said it was part of a plan in place related to weather; there was 1Β½ inches of rain Monday night and Tuesday morning.

Rory McIlroy couldn't believe it.

"Really?" said McIlroy, who was unaware of the maintenance work, as he did not play a practice round Tuesday. "We have 60 yards from left to right line. You've got 156 of the best players in the world here. If we can't hit it within that avenue, you might as well pack your bags and go home. These are the widest fairways we've ever played in a U.S. Open. Even the first and second cut is another 10 yards on top of that.

"So if you've got 50 or 60 yards to hit into, and you're complaining about the fescue that's wider than that. I don't think that's an issue. I get that it's thick and whatever, but it's a hazard. ... And if guys can't put it into play within a 50-yard zone, I don't think they've got much to complain about."

No doubt, Erin Hills is not your typical U.S. Open course, the 52nd one used in 117 U.S. Opens. Wide fairways are far from normal. And while the property is big and the site lines can appear confining, there is plenty of room off the tee, even if it might look tight.

And there are four par-5s. That is a psychological issue more than anything, but it is a first at a U.S. Open since Pebble Beach played as a par-72 in 1992. More par-5s means more scoring opportunities.

"You expect par to be an extremely good score at a U.S. Open," said Jordan Spieth, who won the tournament two years ago at Chambers Bay. "And here, my early thoughts, I don't see par winning the tournament. I see close to 5- to 10-under. Someone who has very good control of the ball off tee will have plenty of scoring opportunities, given the conditions that we're expecting."

That would be rain. A considerable amount fell because of an overnight storm, and varying amounts of precipitation are in the forecast throughout the tournament.

A softer course typically becomes easier, but there should not be issues with playability. As part of the run-up to the U.S. Open, Erin Hills underwent an aggressive top-dressing program with some 1,700 tons of sand. That leads to a sandy soil base that helps with drainage.

Players also are finding a course that is in pristine condition. They are accustomed to that, but not a course that is so pure. Course owner Andy Ziegler, on his own and without prompting from the USGA, did not open the course in 2017. Only a few select outings and player practice rounds were allowed coming into this week.

"To close the course for our preparation has been remarkable," Murphy said.

All of which adds up to a unique U.S. Open experience.

"It's a different type of Open setup," said ESPN analyst Andy North, a Wisconsin native who won the U.S. Open in 1978 and 1985. "Is it right? Is it wrong? I don't know. The setups have changed. We've got to a different philosophy in rough. It's very interesting that you have a U.S. Open, and there's not one single green that has rough around that green. So it's going to be a totally different test of golf.

"We're trying to identify the best player, and however they do it, that's great. It will be interesting to see how it goes. There will be some complaining, I'm sure, but maybe not at the degree that we once had."