ERIN, Wisc. — Two days before the U.S. Open teed off at Erin Hills, Rory McIlroy talked about how his length off the tee would work to his advantage at the monstrous 7,800-yard course.
“It’s a long golf course and it’s only going to play longer,” McIlroy said. “That benefits a few guys, and luckily I’m one of them.”
Then he went out played a practice round with an amateur named Cameron Champ, and quickly “a few guys” became “a few guys plus one.”
On the first two holes of their round, Champ was easily outdriving McIlroy, who ranks seventh in driving distance on the European Tour, by 10 and 20 yards. Then on the third, Champ lost it out to the right, giving McIlroy supremacy for a hole.
“Cameron,” McIlroy said, “at least I know that I can hit it as far as you when you whiff one.”
Champ chuckled, but a simple joke from the world’s No. 2 player had a profound impact on the 22-year-old playing in his first ever major. For he realized that if he could out-drive a player of McIlroy’s capability, and keep it in the fairway, it wouldn’t matter that he’s carrying an (a) next to his name this week. He could bring Erin Hills to its knees as easily as any of them.
So he went out Thursday, drove the ball an average of 349.4 yards, or more than 15 yards further than every other player in the field, and posted a 2-under 70. He followed that up Friday with a ho-hum 329-yard average off the tee that led to a 3-under 69, putting him at 5-under for the tournament and just two shots off the lead held by four golfers, including Paul Casey and Brooks Koepka.
Saturday, while McIlroy will be somewhere other than here after missing the cut, Champ, a senior at Texas A&M, will be teeing off in one of the final pairings of the U.S. Open.
“I guess I’ve just kind of always been that way,” Champ said on Friday of his length off the tee. “I don’t talk about it much. You’ve still got to make a score. Here if you can hit it long and straight, it’s a great advantage. I took advantage of it the last few days.”
The thing about Champ is, he’s not that physically imposing. He doesn’t have the sheer size of Dustin Johnson, or the guns that McIlroy carries or the silky-smooth swing of Adam Scott. If you were to line Champ up with any two players in the 155-player field and ask random people to pick out the biggest hitter, the slender 6-foot-tall Champ would, by the eye test, be a solid third choice.
But then he tees it up, not very high mind you, and unwinds a swing that generates a recently recorded 190 mph ball speed. And then it becomes obvious.
“A lot of times in tournaments, you hear a lot of chatter like, ‘That kid hits it that far? That’s the kid you’re talking about?’ ” said Jake Goodman, Champ’s caddie this week, best friend and former teammate at Texas A&M. “He’s really just a low-key guy who can kill the ball.”
He’s also a guy who can kill the ball who drained a 30-foot putt at a sectional qualifier just to get into the U.S. Open.
Champ struggled to get his round going on the front nine Friday, but made a move on the back, with birdies on three of four holes. At one point, only Rickie Fowler and Paul Casey were ahead of him on the leaderboard.
To keep Champ’s mind off the leaderboard, Goodman talked to him about anything but golf. They talked about getting lunch. They talked about … getting massages.
“Those last few holes can put some kinks in some muscles,” Goodman joked. (It’s true.) “I just tried to keep his mind off of everything that’s going on around him.”
On the 676-yard 18th, Champ unleashed a 353-yard missile right down the middle, leaving him 292 yards to the hole. He rolled his second onto the front of the green, lagged his third, then stood over a twisting 13-footer for birdie. He thought it would break just a little bit, Goodman thought more, so Champ went with his caddy’s advice. The putt caught the lip of the cup, swirled around one time, and fell in. Champ looked up, gave a slight pump of the fist and that was it.
It’s on to Saturday now. The pressure will be high, for sure, but when you’re the longest hitter on a course that demands you hit the ball long, well, you got a shot.
“This is kind of the first time I’ve been in kind of the spotlight,” Champ said. “I’ve known my game could be capable of [this], with my distance and my wedge game.”
Now, he, not McIlroy, is one of the “few guys” left with a shot to win the U.S. Open.