Ryan Brehm is plenty used to difficult golf courses.
But Erin Hills, in eastern Wisconsin?
“The course is sick, man!” Brehm said shortly after completing nine practice holes earlier this week.
Welcome to the U.S. Open, where the rough is thick, the greens are lightning quick, and even the slightest mistakes are penalized at a significantly more devastating rate than, say, the Sony Open.
Brehm knows all about that, having been a golf-watching junkie growing up in Mount Pleasant and, later, at Michigan State.
This week, he gets his first crack at a major championship, after rallying in impressive fashion in a sectional qualifier last week. This is Brehm’s first season on the PGA Tour.
“Umm, I don’t know yet, to be honest,” Brehm said over the phone Monday night, heading to dinner, when asked what his major debut means to him. “It’s special that it’s pretty close to home. I think I’ll always remember it. But other than that, right now, it just seems like a really hard golf tournament.
“But it should be hard. It’s the U.S. Open.”
Brehm will tee off at 2:31 p.m. Thursday, in the 17th tournament of his rookie season on Tour.
It was an impressive feat that he even got here.
At sectional qualifying June 5 at Springfield Country Club in Ohio, Brehm opened his day in pedestrian fashion with an even-par 70, putting him an extreme long shot to secure one of the four U.S. Open spots up for grabs. He trailed 23 players after his morning round, including one guy by nine shots.
And his second round didn’t start great, at 1 over through three holes.
Darkening his mood, he had an 8-hour drive to Memphis staring him in the face following his second round.
But then Brehm caught fire, making birdie on holes 4-6, and making two more at Nos. 10 and 12. Still with plenty of work to do, he arrived at the 15th hole knowing he needed a finish for the ages.
“We knew we had to make a few birdies,” he said.
And that’s exactly what he did, making birdie at Nos. 15, 17 and 18 to card a 7-under 63.
Still, he wasn’t in. In fact, he was barely holding on to the fourth and final spot, with several groups on the course, including several players at 6 under with several holes to go.
But one by one, they faded, until one competitor remained, an amateur from Kansas who made birdie at his 17th hole to get to 6 under. Needing birdie at his final hole, though, he made bogey. And that was that.
Brehm was in the U.S. Open. Jackson’s Brian Stuard, an Oakland alum, also earned a spot at that sectional, and will tee off at 1:03 p.m. Thursday. This will be his third U.S. Open appearance.
“It was a tough track. I kind of knew it would be difficult for those guys coming in,” Brehm said. “Turned out, it held up.
“We had an eight-hour drive down to Memphis (looming), so I was kind of dreading that. But it made that drive a lot easier.”
It also made it easier that his caddie drove the whole way to Memphis, for the St. Jude Classic.
And there, in Memphis, Brehm also seemed to find his game.
Having missed the cut in three of his previous five tournaments, he shot 70-71-70-68 to finish tied for 37th, his fourth-best showing on the PGA Tour, and his second-best since last November.
Brehm has made the cut in 12 of 16 tournaments, and earned nearly $300,000 — a fifth of that when he tied for 18th in his second tournament of the season — but it had been a struggle more recently. Until Memphis. Talk about good timing.
“I think it’s trending in the right direction,” he said. “I’ve seen some things, some signs, that good things are in the future. For a while, it was just a little bit stale. I didn’t feel like I could play a whole lot of offense. I’m always trying to be aggressive. The problem is, it’s hard to be aggressive when you don’t feel like you’re swinging well.
“Last weekend, I hit the ball pretty well and drove it well, I left myself in some really good spots.
“My game is not notorious for driving it straight.”
Brehm, 31, who earned his PGA Tour card with a strong finish on the Web.com Tour last season, ranks sixth in driving distance at 307.1 yards, but 199th on Tour in driving accuracy, at just over 50 percent of fairways. That’s led to subpar statistics in greens in regulation, and putting.
He knows he can’t afford to be wild this week at the U.S. Open, where the rough is so long, it’s already drawing complaints from PGA Tour players, most notably from Kevin Na.
But Brehm, who played Erin Hills for fun back in 2009, said he feels the fairways are generous enough to be OK.
“They give you room to hit it,” he said.
Brehm will be playing in front of lots of friends and family, many of whom can simply take the ferry across Lake Michigan.
When: Thursday-Sunday, Erin Hills, Hartford, Wis.
TV: Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m on FS1, 6-9 p.m. on Fox; Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on Fox; Sunday, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. on Fox
Defending champion: Dustin Johnson
Local entries: Ryan Brehm (Mount Pleasant, Michigan State); Brian Stuard (Jackson, Oakland)