The prospect of taking on an iconic golf course in U.S. Open conditions is something every golf has thought about at one point in their lives.
Maybe when we’re day dreaming at work with golf on in the background of our desktops, or over beers with our buddies in the clubhouse watching the pros play after a weekend round. We picture ourselves hitting majestic drives, rapping home perfectly weighted putts and letting out triumphant fist pumps like Tiger Woods on the 18th green in celebration of having conquered golf’s toughest test.
But, unfortunately, there’s reality to contend with.
The U.S. Open is historically set up as the toughest layout to navigate for the world’s best on the major championship calendar. Narrow fairways, ridiculously thick rough, slick greens and VERY long holes are the norm. It’s hard enough for guys like Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy to win the prestigious title, but for the average weekend golfer it's basically an unthinkable proposition.
What we’re saying is amateurs have very little perspective on what it feels like playing between the ropes in the heat of competition on a course like that.
Lucky for us, Team TaylorMade’s Erik Anders Lang was offered the opportunity to experience that challenge firsthand. He took part in the U.S. Open preview day at Pebble Beach Golf Links, site of this year’s championship, in late May. That meant he would get to take on Pebble in near U.S. Open-like conditions. A tall task, indeed.
Rather than approach the test with the mindset most visitors to 17-Mile Drive have in mind (that is, an easy going, just happy to be here vibe) Erik went in on a mission.
His goal? Break 90.
TaylorMade caught up with Erik, who plays off a 5.5 handicap index, to get his thoughts on the extreme layout, the challenges it presents the amateur golfer and what it’s like coming down the stretch of Pebble with a chance at attaining a (small) piece of glory.
Photo: Stuart Kerr
TaylorMade Golf: You set out to play in this preview day with a specific goal in mind. What was it?
Erik Anders Lang: The concept was “Can we break 90 based on the U.S. Open layout” with trimmed down fairways and thick rough around the small, quick greens. Plus we had to deal with the sheer length of it all.
TMG: Have you played Pebble before this event?
EAL: It was my third time playing Pebble but my first time really playing under severe circumstances.
TMG: How different of a course was it compared to the other times you played it?
EAL: It was different, but Pebble always has this aspect of being an event. It’s a life moment so you’re always kind of nervous on the tee. This was even more so … we played the way, way back tees. It wasn’t even the tips, just the U.S. Open tees. In some cases they added some new tee boxes and things were playing pretty long, I think around 7,550 or 7,600 yards … The rough was basically a mandatory 9-iron out.
TMG: How difficult was it to play feel shots out of that thick rough?
EAL: I actually really enjoyed those shots, those attempts at getting it up and down because you’ve got this unusual circumstance. This rough is five, six, sometimes seven inches. You can lose your hand in there. I kind of enjoyed that new type of shot. Just put the weight on your front foot, getting on that front leg, really crouching down and basically it’s like a bunker shot. You’re just kind of hoping, letting the ball come out. You just want to get that ball on the front of the green and see how far it rolls out.
TMG: Once it did roll out, how’d you fare putting on those greens?
EAL: It was funny … it wasn’t quite as fast as they will be (for the U.S. Open). So I actually had a little bit a of problem getting the ball to the hole, at least in the beginning. I think a lot of that comes from nervousness though. You don’t want to set yourself up for a three-putt, so you’re just trying to cozy it up there to the hole, which was probably my biggest mistake in mindset. You basically are struggling with confidence in your putts. You’re babying it up there and not necessarily getting a pure roll and your line is basically irrelevant at that point.
TMG: Did you find yourself leaning on a certain club or a particular aspect of your game throughout the day?
EAL: A lot of par 4s I would have a 6-iron or even sometimes a 4-iron in, so it was a different bag for me. Even with a smoked drive, which for me is around 285-290 yards, I’d still be looking at 4-iron in on holes like No. 9, 10, 11, which are all pretty long holes even though they were downwind. So you’re really looking at that mid-iron game.
TMG: Let’s get back to your mindset. What did you do different knowing you had a goal to achieve out there?
EAL: At Pebble we went to the range for quite a bit, which I don’t normally do. I normally just roll up to the first tee and hope for a par (laughs). I just kind of want to get the ball somewhere out there and find my swing on the first three holes. I kind of learn where the misses are and I just kind of play that game for the rest of the day. Whereas at Pebble I kind of overdid the range. I think what I ended up with is too much truth. I saw a little too much in my swing and I think I maybe even got a little tired.
But the amount of focus during the round was exciting. I think I went 49-41. The front nine was a massacre but the back nine I got it under control. I almost came in at 88, but I doubled 17 when I had a weird lie in the greenside rough so that didn’t help.
TMG: So you JUST missed a score in the 80s. How’d that feel?
EAL: A 90 at this course, I was proud to walk away with that. I feel really good. It’s a tall order for any handicap. You’ve got a lot of real challenges both mentally and physically. It is something that I’ll look back on. I’ll always think that I could have done better and I’d like to see if I can do better. But I think in the end it had a very positive impact on my game lending me confidence in being like, ‘I can do this’. I just have to come in with a slightly different mindset.
TMG: Was that one of your biggest takeaways from the day?
EAL: It’s funny because the thing I really learned is since leaving Pebble I’ve had three of my best rounds of the year. So that’s kind of the interesting takeaway is leaving that extraordinarily difficult situation and walking into a normal situation and being like, ‘Well, I know I can get up and down from here’.
Photo: Stuart Kerr
TMG: Is there a hole out there that you’re looking forward to watching how the pros approach it during the U.S. Open?
EAL: No. 2 is going to be interesting because it’s not a par-5 for the tournament. It’s a par-4, but they need to be center-left off the tee and hit a really big and straight approach because they have a super tiny green there. These greens are so tiny. A lot of these greens are just kind of blind. No. 6 is also going to be really interesting. Are you going to take driver? If you over cut it where are you going to be with that totally blind second shot?
The scale and elevation changes you don’t see on television like every golf course so that will be interesting to watch. And 18 obviously is a great hole. It’s no lay-up.
WITB for Erik Anders Lang
Watch the full video of Erik’s quest to break 90 at Pebble Beach in U.S. Open conditions here.