Golf Course Review: Erin Hills

 

In rural Southeast Wisconsin is one of the state’s true golfing gems: Erin Hills.

The rugged terrain of Erin Hills looks and feels like the most natural land in the world. The course and its layout, though, are far from natural. In fact, the past seven years have brought radical changes to this beautiful piece of land.

It has always been the goal of current owner, Andy Ziegler, and the course’s former owner, Bob Lang, to host a championship event at Erin Hills. That dream has been realized in the past year, when following a rigorous selection process Erin Hills was named the site of the 2017 US Open.

Championship events are no new thing for Erin Hills. In 2011, it was the site of the US Amateur. Watching it on ESPN for four days whet my appetite to experience this amazing course for myself, and it did not disappoint.

The grand entrance to Erin Hills

I had the privilege of spending several hours with Rich Tock, Director of Operations for Erin Hills, prior to my round. Rich is a legend in Wisconsin golf, having previously been the Head PGA Golf Professional at Ozaukee Country Club for 21 years. He is also one heck of a golfer, holding the record for low round at a number of great Wisconsin courses, including the Milwaukee Country Club. Rich is a man who knows golf, and his passion for the sport and the future of his course is unequivocal.It was a real eye-opener hearing about all the details that go in to making a course tournament-ready. When Ziegler purchased the course from Lang in November of 2009, the wheels were in motion to secure the event. Narrowed down from a group of eight contending courses, Erin Hills was chosen for the US Open over Shinnecock, Cog Hill and five others.

Its vast landscape, championship event specific features like a virtual highway (which will support camera crews and logistical teams, and runs around and through the heart of the course), and the ability to handle the 75,000 fans per day that are expected tee up Erin Hills beautifully for the demands by Mike Davis and his USGA governing body.One of the first tasks for new ownership was the removal of all paths and gravel, which were subsequently seeded for fescue. The course simultaneously removed 325 trees and built a new maintenance building, practice facilities and entrance road. They then moved the one home on the course to the property’s outer limits [and donated it to a worthy cause], resulting in a lack of any homes or manmade structures other than integral course facilities.

The fairways at Erin Hills, like those at the Straits Course at Whistling Straits, are fine fescue that is closely shorn and roll like nothing I had ever played on. There is still a small amount of poiana grass in the fairways, but it is being phased out to provide an entirely fescue experience. Some areas of the fairways are slightly browning, and I was interested to learn that this is dormant fescue (not dead grass).

The greens and tees are entirely bent grass. The greens normally run at an eleven to eleven and a half on the stimp meter, but are sped up to twelve to thirteen for tournament play.

Because of the fine fescue on the course, motorized and pull carts are not allowed at Erin Hills. The eighteen-hole trek is eight and a half miles walking down the center of each fairway. Had I been wearing a GPS tracking device, it would have shown significantly more mileage for my round.

In the past three years, the course has ripped out and reseeded every bit of fescue on the course. This was not only done in the fescue areas just off the fairways, but on the hillsides and meadows, as well.

The hillsides of the moraine landscape at Erin Hills have been covered in glacial rock for centuries. Liz, who provided us with a tour of “The Village,” worked on the maintenance crew from the age of 13, coming by the course after school to clear stones from the fields and hillsides. It is this type of commitment and attention to detail that has helped secure the most prestigious of all golf events for Erin Hills. It is also the demands and suggestions by the USGA that have not only closed the course down for several extended periods of time, but have drastically changed the course’s play.

The beautiful ninth hole, for example, was previously the course’s “Bye hole.” It was the nineteenth hole that was played to settle up bets in square matches, and was not part of the course’s original eighteen because it was felt that it did not fit well with the rest of the course. Adding this wonderful hole (Rich’s favorite on the course, and certainly one of mine), and removing the previous tenth hole (which consisted of all blind shots), played a part in bringing the course’s par score down from 73 to 72.

Other changes played a part, including turning the seventh hole in to a par five (previously a par three with a blind tee shot), and changing ten from a par five to four. Other “minor changes” included adding a new bunker on three, a new back tee to extend eight, and adding a new tee on five.

Following the removal of most trees in 2010, the course reworked the edges of all their bunkers, reestablishing steeper and more structurally fortified fronts. Their perimeters jut in all directions, and are almost never circular in shape, requiring tough stances to get bunkered shots out.

Not only is the land at Erin Hills set up ideally to host a large-scale event, but the course itself is adaptable to be played at an unlimited number of lengths and levels of difficulty. The swirling winds in such an open area can make stretches of holes either unbelievably difficult, or thankfully more playable. Eleven through fifteen for us were straight into the teeth of the wind. With accuracy at a premium, they were challenging to say the least.

With five to six sets of tees on each hole, the multitude of length combinations at Erin Hills is staggering. The 2011 US Amateur played to 7,750 yards, but the course can be extended to over 8,000. This will be the longest course played in the history of the US Open. For average players like myself, the 6,700-yard green tees were challenging enough.

Do not expect to score what you would at a “normal” golf course here. Erin Hills is far from a normal course, and if you are going to spend the money, make sure you enjoy it, too.

Three of the four players in our group employed caddies. What does that cost, you ask? A caddy costs $50 per person, plus tip. I expected a good tip to be around $25, but the minimum is $45.

Our caddies, Tyler and Blaine, were excellent. Not only do they have a wealth of local knowledge, but they are invaluable in the short game. The greens roll perfectly true. Not only are they fast, but they have a lot of break. Downhill putts are slippery, and uphill putts require a bit of extra oomph. After making my initial read, I would ask and the caddies would tell me the right line within seconds. Within inches, they were right each time.

Erin Hills has a world class practice facility, including a huge driving range that features an abundance of practice greens, and laser rangefinders to help lock in distances. As my cousin, Frank, said, “You know you’re at a nice course when the range balls don’t have lines on them.” With the range balls being brand new TaylorMade Pentas, this is a very nice place.

The championship range we used today is the same that will be used for the US Open. Standing room and grandstands will abound in the long fescue area that backs the tee area, and there is a third teeing area on the far side of the driving range for players who are looking to get away from the crowds. The everyday practice tees are located to the right of the championship ones. The course rotates stations frequently to consistently provide fresh grass to warm up on.

Part of the practice facility
To the left of the championship tee boxes is a vast chipping area, complete with bunkers and fairway to approach from to practice shots inside one hundred yards. I did not have time to use this area, but would love to spend hours on it any other day. The practice green is large, and features a variety of slopes that will be found on the course. The only practice greens I have found that compare in size and variety of putts were at Torrey Pines and Whistling Straits (both championship event sites).

Dial in your shots on the range, because the course requires precision. Starting with the first hole tee shot, the fairways are tight – they will be drawn in even tighter for the US Open – and anything off the fairways can get awfully difficult. The rough is long, and the plethora of craggy fairway bunkers look brutal to hit out of.The course is right now as it will be for the 2017 US Open. Erin Hills made the aforementioned changes required to host this event in just three years what would have taken any other course five to seven.

The first hole is a medium-length par five that plays to 539 yards from the green tees. The tee shot should be played to the right side of the fairway, and the second shot over the central fairway bunker. The approach plays shorter than it looks. Playing to the left brings in the marsh area and a steep drop-off from the green, while hitting short to the right can filter on.