The 117th US Open at Erin Hills: Preview

When shovels first entered the ground that is now Erin Hills Golf Course in 2004, a long and tumultuous journey was initiated that was aimed at one goal: Hosting a US Open.

After thirteen years, multiple changes in routing and hole designs, new ownership and many, many demands met, one of Wisconsin’s newest and greatest golf destinations is finally fit for the prime time. The entire golf world is converging on small-town Erin, Wisconsin, and the course and America’s heartland are ready for their moment in the sun.

The journey that has gotten Erin Hills to this point has been well-documented, but never as well-written as it was recently by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Columnist Gary D’Amato in his recent 7-part series, “The Making of a US Open Course: Erin Hills,” linked here:

The Making of a US Open Course: Erin Hills, by Gary D’Amato (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Only two days remain until the opening round of the 117th US Open, and I am excited to spend tomorrow there watching practice rounds as well as Friday to witness round two.

I have been actively involved with Erin Hills throughout the years, including several media days and playing a number of other rounds to review and photograph the course (my number one course in the state of Wisconsin) and of course to enjoy challenging rounds with friends on what is certainly one of the country’s greatest golf courses.

A few links to articles I’ve written on Erin Hills include:

Recap of the 2015 US Open media day at Erin Hills

 

 

 

Still looking for tickets to this year’s US Open? There is still limited availability to be had on the US Open website. Gallery tickets (allowing basic access to the event) start at $60 for Wednesday’s practice rounds, and are going for $110 for Thursday and $125 for Sunday. Friday and Saturday are already sold out.

There are several other, slightly more expensive, ticket options available for Wednesday’s practice rounds, as well as for the final round on Sunday, but they have been selling out quickly and are sure to be gone soon.

This is the first time the US Open has ever been played in the great state of Wisconsin, and I couldn’t be more excited to be there to watch the action and cheer on state competitors Steve Stricker and Jordan Niebrugge.

Will Phil make it to Erin by his 2:20 tee time on Thursday? Will Stricker or Niebrugge represent Wisconsin well on the leader board? Will Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Bubba Watson, Jon Rahm or any other huge hitters be able to overpower the shear length of the nearly 8,000-yard course?

Weather will certainly be a factor, with rain and thunderstorms in the forecast for much of the coming week. It is my hope that the weather will not define Erin Hills’ chance to shine, although high winds in otherwise dry conditions would make for amazing theater – players looking to score will need to avoid the long, thick fescue at all costs.

My top three picks for the 117th US Open: Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia

My underdogs: Steve Stricker, Peter Uihlein, Kevin Chappell

My top amateur prediction: Brad Dalke

Keep an eye on my Twitter (@wissportsaddict) and Instagram (WiscoGolfAddict) feeds for on-location photos from my time at the US Open, and let’s all pray for the rain and thunderstorms to stay away.

AmFam Championship Countdown: Less than 3 Weeks!

Last Tuesday, WiscoGolfAddict contributing writer John Ziemer and I were at University Ridge Golf Course for the PGA Champions Tour American Family Championship media day in Madison, Wisconsin.

PGA and now Champions Tour legend Steve Stricker was mid-photo shoot when we arrived, leading up to the best interview panel I’ve seen in years: Stricker, last year’s event champion Kirk Triplett, two-time US Open winner and all-around world-class ambassador to the game of golf and the state of Wisconsin Andy North, American Family Insurance CEO Jack Salzwedel, and Tournament Director Nate Pokrass.

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Steve Stricker leaving the 9th green to join the AmFam Championship media day panel at University Ridge in Verona, WI

Staged questions to this prestigious panel were fairly quick and poignantly directed, allowing ample time for questions from the assembled media members.

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Nate Pokrass, Andy North, Kirk Triplett, Steve Stricker and Jack Salzwedel on stage for the AmFam Championship media day at University Ridge

Just over a week from the first US Open in the state’s history, much had been made about Stricker’s then-ineligibility for the country’s premier pro and amateur championship.

“This is the first US Open in the history of Wisconsin, and to not have a representative from Wisconsin is not right,” Steve told us. Currently the number 78th ranked player in the world, Stricker said “It’s not like I’m not competitive.”

Stricker has spent 253 total weeks as a top ten player in the official world golf rankings, won 12 times on the PGA Tour and 22 times total as a professional.

Eligible for the first time to play in the Champions Tour event at U-Ridge this year, Steve has been more than competitive over the past month, too, including:

  • The Masters: Tied 16th (E)
  • Zurich Classic: Tied 14th (-17)
  • PLAYERS Championship: Tied 41st (+3)
  • Dean & Deluca: Tied 7th (-6)
  • Memorial Tournament: Tied 40th (+1)

The USGA’s refusal to allow Steve in the tournament has not just annoyed him, but also inspired him – Strick’s last chance was earlier today in Memphis where he shot 67-65 at Ridgeway and Germantown Country Clubs to take first place among all participants in the sectional qualifier.

Also announced today was the celebrity foursome for this year’s Saturday round at the AmFam Championship: Brett Favre, Derek Jeter, Darius Rucker and Andy North.

Rucker, the multi-platinum and Grammy award winning county artist and former front-man of Hootie & The Blowfish, will also be hosting a concert on Friday, June 23rd on-site at University Ridge.

Last year’s celebrity foursome drew huge crowds when Favre and North partnered with ex-Packer and Wisconsinite Mark Tauscher and tournament host Stricker (he was not yet eligible to play on the Champions Tour, but still hosted the event).

If celebrities, great concerts and a beautiful golf course isn’t enough to get you on the road to Madison for the AmFam Championship, then maybe great golf will be. Last year’s winner, Kirk Triplett, fielded questions at the media event about the tournament as well as his final round 65 to win the inaugural event by two strokes over Bart Bryant and Mike Goodes.

While Triplett will defend his title at University Ridge, he will be met by many of last year’s field as well as Stricker and some great notables including golf announcer and one of the game’s all-time greats, Sir Nick Faldo, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Scott McCarron and Tom Lehman. The AmFam Championship will be Faldo’s first Champions Tour event since 2015.

AmFam Championship Media Day Video (John and I are in the crowd)

Tuesday was the first time I had the opportunity to play University Ridge since they renovated the course back in 2012, replacing putting surfaces with 007 Creeping Bent Grass, removing trees to allow for better air-flow and turf growth, adding a world-class indoor practice facility for the University of Wisconsin golf team, and making many other general improvements.

The results of their renovation are terrific. I was fortunate to be in a great foursome, too, including University of Wisconsin golf team head coach Mike Burcin, ESPN Wisconsin Homer & Gabe radio co-host Gabe Neitzel, and WISN Channel 12 Emmy award-winning sports reporter Stephen Watson.

I was the low man on the totem pole on that day, for sure. Neitzel moves the ball well, Watson is a huge hitter with great touch, and Burcin is an unbelievably skilled and well-rounded player. We finished at -9 or -10, which was good for fifth or sixth place. We lost by one stroke to Ziemer and our friends, Jason Kauflin (Wisconsin Golf Trips) and Chuck Garbedian’s (Garbedian on Golf, ESPN) team, which was the one sore spot on a fantastic day spent in Madison.

One of the shots they beat us with: Ziemer’s closest-to-the-pin winner on the par three 5th hole:

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John Ziemer’s closest-to-the-pin winner on the par three 5th at University Ridge GC

For AmFam Championship ticket information, including the Friday Darius Rucker concert, visit here:

2017 AmFam Championship event tickets

For more information on Robert Trent Jones, Jr’s beautiful University Ridge Golf Course, visit the course’s website here:

University Ridge Golf Course website

I’m currently working on updating my review of U-Ridge including new and better photos, and you can also look forward to great pics from the media day event by John Ziemer. For now, here is my 2011 review:

WiscoGolfAddict review of University Ridge Golf Course (2011)

Medinah CC Course 2: The Unveiling

This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit a property I have always wanted to visit: Medinah Country Club.

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A grand entrance to Medinah Country Club, just outside of Chicago IL

The lore of Medinah’s No. 3 course is well-documented, having hosted numerous majors and professional tournaments, including:

  • The Ryder Cup (2012)
  • The US Open (1949, 1975, 1990)
  • The PGA Championship (1999, 2006)
  • The US Senior Open (1988)
  • The Western Open, now the BMW Championship (1939, 1962, 1966, 2019)

All three courses were originally designed in the 1920’s by Tom Bendelow. Course Two debuted in 1925 and was the last of the three Medinah layouts to undergo renovation.

Ten years ago, a struggling golf industry and ultra-competitive high-end private club market in the Chicago area forced the Medinah membership to make a big decision: Either make significant capital investments to elevate the entire property to a level that supports their mission of being the area’s elite private club, or allow the competitive environment and state of the game and economy to steamroll it in to lowering dues and expectations.

The membership voted not only to hold tight to the mystique that has enveloped their club over the past century, but to enhance it to the tune of $46 million in capital expenditures.

While the most significant of those investments was $10 million on the clubhouse (WOW what a clubhouse and dining experience!), millions were also spent to update their three courses. No expenses were spared as the club brought in world-class designers Tom Doak to renovate the No. 1 course, and Rees Jones for the No. 3 and soon-to-be-reopened No. 2.

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A view of the central practice green in front of the clubhouse’s roundabout

Jones’ $3-million renovation of the No. 2 course included extensive tree removal, re-turfing with 007 creeping bent grass (now the same on all three courses) for greens, tees and fairways, Kentucky Bluegrass for the rough, the addition of storm drainage, a sand mix basin for subsurface draining, and a wall-to-wall cart path… That’s an impressive start…

Where I think Course Two will prove to be really special is in the plans Jones, Director of Golf Marty DeAngelo, Director of Golf Operations Curtis Tyrrell and others have for beginners’ programs.

Medinah has always been on the forefront of bettering the game of golf, from hosting major championships to being the state of Illinois’ standard-barer for the Evans Scholar program.

Their exciting new initiative to better the game of golf is Marty DeAngelo’s pilot program, “Golf for Life.” An adaption of the acclaimed Longleaf Tee System, Golf for Life is a graduated skills program that allows beginners to progress from three holes to six, six to nine, and so on.

As their games develop, players graduate from sets of tees ranging from the seventh furthest back set (orange) to the longest set (gold). Different skill levels play to different pars – while a par four may play as four to a gold player, it may play as an eight for an orange one.

Program participants’ initial tee boxes are determined by the distance they can drive the ball and their general skill level, factors that are supported by top-of-the-line technology and PGA Professionals’ expertise.

The concept of changing par allows players to hone their skills in a safe environment. Different scorecards can even be used for different “courses” within the same course. Medinah then tracks progress and creates programs to combat weaknesses, all meant to lead to an elevated feeling of comfort and growth. With tees ranging from 1,978 to 6,400 yards on the No. 2 course, Golf for Life aims to get kids, especially, in to the game and keep them.

It’s about “not feeling defeated before you tee off,” Rees told us. “I played with Jack Nicklaus, and he said to me, ‘Are you going to play up there at the ladies’ tees, or are you going to come back here with me?'” Rees joined Jack from the back tees and said he “was already defeated.”

The game needs to grow, and if I know anything about golfers it’s that love [and addiction] for the game comes through development and that fleeting feeling of doing something just right. New players can’t expect to go out and shoot par, but they can expect a process of learning, and along that path to grow a love for the game that keeps them coming back.

More than anything, Rees Jones’ redesign of Medinah Course Two is a restoration project that returns much of the original 1925 architecture of Tom Bendelow.

The trend in golf following World Was II was to shrink greens and eliminate sand traps. Seeing green contours as a form of hazard, Jones restored many of Bendelow’s original intentions for the course, including green shapes and sizes, based on aerial photos from 1938.

Over 600 trees were supplanted to restore the architect’s original intentions, and closely mowed areas now run in to and around sand traps, recovery areas and the walk-ups to adjacent tee boxes. This natural lead-up is an old-school feature I’ve come to appreciate, and one I’ve noticed at other upper-echelon Golden Age clubs including Milwaukee , Shoreacres and others.

“Bunkers are the personality of golf courses,” Rees told us, and the trick is to make sand features “Challenging, everlasting and interesting.”

Rees considers the traps on Course Two to be the simplest of any of the three layouts. Their depths are modest, allowing for manageable egress by both players on foot and for their sand shots. Position is still key, but the lack of brutally deep bunkers and high lips is intended to keep from discouraging players.

While many trees were removed from the course, most tree lines were maintained – they still provide a natural barrier to the fairways but should not allow for lost balls.

The overall fairway acreage on Course Two was expanded from 21 to 34 acres on a course with just 110 total acres of terrain. Comparatively, the great Merion Golf Club lies on 126 acres, and my beloved home course of North Hills is just 126.5. Sometimes the best things come in small packages, and Course Two at Medinah qualifies.

My overwhelming feeling while touring Course Two with Rees Jones, the staff of Medinah and other members of the golf media is that this course will be a ton of fun. No. 2 was not designed to beat players about the head, and its key defenses against par are its magnificent, large and undulating greens and what will undoubtedly be fast and furious conditions.

Rees incorporated fun and aesthetically pleasing features in to other areas of the course’s design, too, including one of my favorites here: A shared hazard and fairway area between the par four fifth and par three sixth:

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The sixth is the longest par three on the course, measuring 207 yards from the tips with a small green surrounded by Ohio Fairmont Minerals Best white sand and closely shorn runoffs. Grass cut to fairway length encircles the entire green complex, requiring precision on shots around the green.

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The par 3 6th hole on the new Course Two at Medinah Country Club (207 yards)

The eighth is another great looking par three, uphill to a large putting surface with fantastic undulations. First a look at the hole from the tee boxes, taken by Nick Novelli, then a view of most of the putting surface – these greens look amazing!

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Medinah Country Club, Course Two, Par 3 – photo credit to Nick Novelli

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One of Rees Jones’ beautifully constructed greens on Course Two at Medinah Country Club – large, well-contoured and will require a great tee shot – or spectacular two-putt

Eighteen is a great looking finishing hole on the redesigned Course Two at Medinah, and again what makes it special more than anything else is its spectacular greens complex: What looks like an infinity green from the approach shot actually has a bit of room to work with in back. However, a closely mowed and recessed collection area to the left should lead to challenging recovery shots.

Medinah’s world-class clubhouse looms as the backdrop:

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During our tour with Curtis, Rees and Marty, it was exciting to see and hear about everything that went in to Course Two’s redesign, but more than that it was great to witness the pride they have in the work they’ve put in to both restore and renovate what is sure to be a course that, like No. 3, will stand the test of time and provide a third track at Medinah that new and long-standing members alike will enjoy for generations to come.

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Medinah Director of Golf Operations Curtis Tyrrell, architect Rees Jones, Director of Golf Marty DeAngelo and me on the 18th green of the newly redesigned Course Two at Medinah Country Club… Yes, I know I wore the wrong shoes for a course tour

Medinah Country Club, Course Two Website

My First Ever [Kind of] Hole-in-One!

In the thousands and thousands of rounds of golf and at least four times as many par threes I’ve played, I’ve never had a hole-in-one.

While I still don’t officially have one, I at least finally have my own hole-in-one story!

Several times a week, I get home from work and play a little 4-hole track in the back corner of North Hills Country Club that goes down the hill on six, across the river on the par three seventh, back across the river on the par three twelfth and then up the hill toward home on the par four thirteenth.

My 4-hole track v2

When my wife texted me she was leaving work at 5:15, I figured I had a little time on my own to head out and tool around the course. I spent some time practicing shaping iron shots right-to-left and left-to-right yesterday, and I was excited all day because I felt like I found something.

I started out on six pulling a couple of tee shots in to the woods, but hit some really nicely drawn iron shots around trees to get out of trouble. That felt good.

My range finder’s battery died this weekend so I took a guess that the blue tees on seven were set up somewhere in my 5- or 6-iron range. With a back-left pin on the other side of the greenside bunker to the left, I took my five and set up for a fade.

The swing felt perfect and the ball went right at the pin with a little left-to-right. It hit and I saw it kick a little to the right then disappear. Might be in?

It felt so good I had to hit another. Another perfect feeling swing and an even better, more lofted ball flight. This one was with a Bridgestone B330S #1 ball. It came down a little softer and again veered a little toward the right before disappearing.

The seventh plays way uphill, so it would be impossible to actually see the ball go in, but I had a feeling at least the second one was in. Sure enough, just one ball on the green and it was about ten feet past the pin.

The ball mark for the first shot was about five feet left of the hole, and there was another one five to ten feet short and just left… And then, of course, my B330S #1 ball in the cup.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t count as a hole-in-one for two key reasons: First because it was my second tee shot, and second because there were no witnesses.

I stuck around for about 5 minutes to see if anyone else came around – John and Ryan did, so I was able to find out how long of a shot it was that went in: 174 yards. Even though it doesn’t count, I took a little video to commemorate the occasion and at least now I know it’s possible!

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Video: Pulling the ball out on my first ever [kind of] hole-in-one

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The ball marks of my two tee shots from 174 yards on the par three 7th

Making the turn back toward home, the next hole I played is the par three twelfth back over the Menomonee River. I thought to myself it would be pretty crazy to get back-to-back holes in one, and when I hit my cut 6-iron over the river I started thinking it might happen. Landing 5″ from the hole, it rolled out to about fifteen feet and was an easy two-putt par.

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That close to back-to-back holes in one (ball mark just to the side of the hole)

Course Review: The National at Reynolds Lake Oconee (GA)

Reynolds Lake Oconee, National course rankings:
Golf.com: #5 Georgia public

Designer: Tom Fazio (2000, 2014)

During last month’s trip to Lake Oconee, Georgia, our first 27 holes were played on The National course. The National features three nine-hole tracks: The Ridge, Cove and Bluff. On most days, two of the nines are open while the third is being worked on – we were unfortunately not able to check out the Ridge course, but were very happy with what we found on the Bluff and Cove tracks.

Designed by Tom Fazio and debuted in 2000 (the third nine was added in 2014), the National at Reynolds Lake Oconee is the only 27-hole course on the property and, while it is not considered to be one of the two “premiere” tracks at Reynolds, I have been told it is the sure number three and from what we saw that’s for good reason: The nines are really well laid out and interesting, and Fazio’s layouts feature beautiful views, great shot quality and plenty of challenge.

We played the first tees in for all of our rounds in Lake Oconee, which made for a comfortable 6,593 yards for the Bluff/Cove combination at the National. Bluff/Cove is the longest combination of 18 holes on the premise, measuring 7,034 yards from the tips. The other two combinations are in the mid- to high-6,900’s.

Flying in to Atlanta, everybody’s flights were well timed so we didn’t have to wait more than 30 minutes for everyone to get their golf bags and then have Jeff, our trip planner, pick us up curbside in a massive white van. Even with eight guys’ luggage and golf bags, we fit in easily with room to spare, making for a comfortable hour and a half journey to Lake Oconee.

We arrived at the National more than an hour ahead of our tee time, and were all still wearing what we traveled in from Wisconsin during March – there were a lot of open van doors in the parking lot for us to change in to golf clothes since we were not yet able to check in to the condos.

Day one was the one suspect day of the trip weather-wise, and I chose long pants. I regretted that decision as the sun made for a more than comfortable golf experience.

A quick group shot before heading out for our first nine – we played a total of 91 holes in three days while at Reynolds Lake Oconee:

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Jeff, me, Greg, Dan, Nick, Mitch, Mike and Justin on the first tee of The National, Bluff nine at Reynolds Lake Oconee

While the layout of the National course was very enjoyable, there was a big difference in conditioning here versus on the Oconee and Great Waters courses. Oconee and Great Waters, which are Reynolds Lake Oconee’s premiere tracks, were over-seeded during the early season to encourage more lush, green conditions, while the National and other courses on the property were allowed to grow in more naturally.

That should be great for the regular season, but for a bunch of guys from Wisconsin it made for conditions that were less spectacular (as a caveat, the conditions on the other two courses were phenomenal): Still dormant grass and slower, sometimes choppy putting surfaces. Being the first course we played on site, we had no complaints and it was a terrific warm-up round.

Now for a walk-through of the Bluff and Cove nines on Tom Fazio’s National course…

The sand traps down the right side of the fairway are definitely in play off the first tee, as is the treeline down the left side of the fairway. It’s a fairly straightforward opening hole, though, which is welcomed following all the travel it took to get there.

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The National, Bluff course hole 1: Par 4 (386/365/313/278)

The second hole on the Bluff course has an absolutely diabolical green. With a middle-right pin location, a few of us thought we had perfect approach shots. We all watched as our balls veered further and further right until they were all well off and below the green surface. This is a tough pin to get to.

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The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

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The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

A look at the green from behind:

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The National, Bluff course hole 2: Par 4 (384/364/336/297)

With a fairway bending right and then finishing slightly uphill, the third hole on the Bluff course urges players to try cutting the corner for a better angle in – I tried and hit the right-side fairway bunker, making for a much more challenging approach.

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The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

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The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

The uphill approach to the third green:

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The National, Bluff course hole 3: Par 5 (550/526/500/445)

The first of the par threes on the Bluff course, the fourth is a beautiful one-shotter abutting the shore of Lake Oconee. Playing around 165 yards from the #2 tees, I hit a club longer than normal and hit the back-left of the green, caroming right and catching the back slope to find its way back toward the hole. I had about a fifteen-footer left, which I nestled up for an easy three.

Even with 91 holes, I didn’t have a single birdie on the trip. Our group had quite a few overall, though, including two on par threes by Jeff during our first 18, and two by Greg on the first nine of day two at Great Waters. These guys were throwing darts!

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The National, Bluff course hole 4: Par 3 (173/165/137/132)

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The National, Bluff course hole 4: Par 3 (173/165/137/132)

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