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A view of the 18th hole during the first round of the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. (PHOTO: Copyright USGA/Jeff Haynes)

The U.S. Open at Erin Hills has had a bad start

TOWN OF ERIN – The 117th U.S. Open has gotten off to an inauspicious start.

Earlier this week, before it even began, players grumbled about Erin Hills' long fescue grass making for a merciless rough, and inclement weather forecasts ultimately forced grounds crews to trim the golf course's signature feature.

Then, strong rainstorms delayed practice rounds and drenched the expansive course, making it softer and easier to play, an unhappy development for the USGA, which prefers more difficult scoring. Then, conditions cleared up before the tournament teed off, which generally was a good thing, except that it also meant fan-favorite Phil Mickelson had to withdraw because his daughter's graduation was at the same time Thursday. No Mickelson and no Tiger Woods, who also wasn't playing, robbed Erin Hills of golf's two biggest names.

Then, with the U.S. Open only a few hours old, it was struck by dramatic – and utterly out of its control – disaster, as an unaffiliated blimp, advertising for PenFed Credit Union, deflated, burst into flames and crashed about a mile from the course and its thousands of spectators. The pilot suffered serious burns and injuries and had to be flown out on a medical helicopter.

As expected, the course played easy on the first day – except for some of golf's biggest stars, who struggled even as a U.S. Open-record 44 players broke par, a problematic combination of high scoring and low-profile performances. Then, on Thursday night, news surfaced that a hydration station on the course was found to have evidence of E. coli in its water, which alarmed some fans, though there were no reports of anyone contracting the infection and free bottled water was being offered Friday.

And then, on Friday afternoon, the USGA had to make the sad, stunning announcement that a spectator died at the tournament. The Washington County Sheriff said the 94-year-old man passed away of natural causes, but a fan's death is nonetheless the worst announcement that can be made at a sporting event.

Indeed, it was not a good start for the 117th U.S. Open, the first PGA major championship hosted by Erin Hills Golf Course, nor for the USGA or Wisconsin, really.

The U.S. Open is bringing money, visitors and attention to the area, with the economic impact on the region estimated at around $120 million. Local law enforcement and tournament officials have done a marvelous job at managing the logistics, especially considering the potential pitfalls of an event with such huge size, scope and stakes in a town (Erin) with a population of less than 4,000 that is 35 miles from Milwaukee. And, truly, the course is pristine, the weather has been glorious and the golf fantastic; the spectacle and splendor of the U.S. Open have been resplendently up to par.

But despite how amazing it all looks, the optics around Erin Hills have been unquestionably bad. And that's disappointing, particularly because it's hard to say that any of the problems were actually within anyone's control. Erin Hills was awarded the U.S. Open back in 2010, and its readiness seemed unassailable – there were no reports of incompetence or preparation delays or last-minute scrambling; to stroll the grounds is to be mesmerized by the magnificence of the course and the grandness of the event, with its enormous roving infrastructure, legion of staff and assorted media and punctilious commitment to procedure and decorum. And, in chatting with fans in the stands, people mostly seem glad just to be here, watching the best players golf on a gorgeous day.

It's been a series of unfortunate events for this U.S. Open, to be sure, some of which were probably unavoidable. And even though it's felt like an exercise in Murphy's Law, it must also be stated that the USGA and tournament officials have handled the issues adroitly and with a lot of sunburned-but-smiling faces.

The first round is just about over and the field will soon be cut down. Hopefully, with the sports world still watching, lots of golf left to play and the negative storylines perhaps all used up, the U.S. Open at Erin Hills can successfully continue and finish up far better than it started.

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