Erin Hills Media Day: Counting Down the Years to the 2017 US Open

With almost exactly three years until the weekend of the 2017 US Open, Erin Hills Golf Course has come a long way!

Following Martin Kaymer’s runaway victory at Pinehurst No. 2 this past weekend, you can be sure Mike Davis is readying Chambers Bay for a much tougher challenge – hopefully one that will not be dominated by one great player as it was in 2014.

The 2015 tournament at Chambers Bay will mark the first US Open ever played in the Pacific Northwest, and the 2017 championship will mark the first ever played in the state of Wisconsin.

For my original articles/reviews of Erin Hills Golf Course, please visit the following links:


Erin Hills is well on their way to being prepared for the 2017 US Open. With several recent improvements – a new green complex on the third hole being the most noticeable – the course is already playing as it will for our country’s most prestigious golf tournament.

Erin Hills hosted their annual media day yesterday. 40 members of the local and national golf media, including myself, were treated to a day of fantastic golf on the tenth rated course in the country, just 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee.

Panoramic view from the Erin Hills clubhouse

A press conference kicked off the media event, and was hosted by Erin Hills’ Competitions Director John Morrissett, General Chairman Jim Reinhart, and Superintendent Zach Reineking.

General Chairman of the 2017 US Open, Jim Reinhart

The topics covered varied from comparisons of Erin Hills to other great US Open venues, to the course’s focus on sustainability and being the beacon of stewardship for environmentalism in the golf world.

Here are some of my key takeaways from yesterday’s press conference:

Comparisons/Differences Between Erin Hills and Pinehurst No. 2:

Both courses have a similar look at golf course maintenance and environmental sustainability. They also have a similar design mentality: Each course has been allowed to grow in naturally.

Both courses feature fine fescue turf, which makes for a fast and furious playing surface! “Burning out” is promoted, and speeds up play and shortens par fives, especially, while requiring much less water (Erin Hills has not watered since May 28). Fine fescue requires less irrigation, no chemicals, dries quickly, and allows the course to be manipulated easily.

Both courses have a ton of physical space. Erin Hills has 652 acres of land, which should allow it to host a tremendous number of spectators (audiences typically range from 25,000 spectators/day to 45,000 spectators/day for the US Open).

Both are removed from metropolitan areas, and are flexible with traffic patterns. While Erin Hills is 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee, Pinehurst is approximately 40 miles from Raleigh/Durham. Merion, the site of last year’s US Open, in contrast, resides in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and getting there and out was much less simple.

While Pinehurst No. 2 has trees, Erin Hills has very few, and while Pinehurst No. 2 has 100+ acres of wasteland, Erin Hills has 140 acres of un-mowed and un-irrigated fine fescue.


What Mike Davis Loves About Erin Hills for the 2017 US Open:
For one thing, the flexibility of the course at Erin Hills is superb. Par fours can be changed from long beasts to driveable par fours that promote excitement and allow players to “Go for it” to try to make up a stroke or two. Holes and yardages can also vary drastically through the changing of tee boxes, depending on the days’ prevailing winds.
I have been told that the most polarizing concept of the USGA’s for next year’s US Open at Chambers Bay will involve the idea of “Messing with the idea of par.” While a hole may be a long par five one day, it might be played as a par four the next. How will this play out in the eyes of spectators and fans? Only time will tell. Erin Hills’ flexibility will allow for much of the same.
Mike Davis has said that the biggest challenge to the future of golf in the United States is not the number of people playing/popularity, but instead water usage. Erin Hills takes “TDR” measurements incessantly, and never irrigates unless needed. Fine fescue performs best under slight stress. While a typical 65-70 acre golf course averages more than 25 million gallons of water usage per year, Erin Hills requires much less: Between just 15-18 million gallons of water on their massive 85 acres of irrigated playing space.
The support of Midwest golf fans and the number of spectators that the area can draw cannot be understated, and the physical space on-site will allow for numerous corporate hospitality areas with views of the course below them for true amphitheater-like settings. The 17th and 18th, for example, set up for amazing natural viewing areas.

The Economic Impact of the 2017 US Open On Our Region:
While a course like Merion, which hosted the 2013 US Open, can host the lower end number of spectators, venues like Erin Hills and Pinehurst No. 2 are capable of hosting many more. With so many visitors expected, the overall economic impact of the 2017 US Open to our region should be between $140-160 million!
Ticket sales for Erin Hills’ tournament will open following the 2016 US Open at Oakmont Country Club (Oakmont, PA), and registration for volunteers will debut toward the end of 2015. While the 2011 US Amateur needed around 800 event volunteers, the US Open will require closer to 5,000. Wisconsin, and the Midwest in general, is well known to have a fantastic base of golf event volunteers.
One of the most common questions asked about the upcoming tournament at Erin Hills is: Where will everyone stay? Are there plans to build a 400-room hotel to host fans and players while the weekend is underway? The answer is no. The areas that are expected to see the best occupancy rates for visitors to the tournament include Milwaukee (35 miles from Erin Hills), Fond du Lac (41 miles), Oshkosh (62 miles), Madison (65 miles), and even Green Bay (112 miles). 30-60 minute commutes are not uncommon for major golf tournaments, and will not be seen as a detriment to the event.
Erin Hills’ Preparations for the 2017 US Open:
This Winter, two USGA staffers will move to Wisconsin to begin preparations for the event and its logistics, and the course has obviously done quite a bit itself.
On-course, Erin Hills redesigned the third hole this past year. The former green complex was a natural site with too extreme of a slope. The new green shortens the hole by about 18 yards, and shifts the approach about 20 yards to the right. These changes make the green more receptive to long iron shots, and allows for more potential pin locations. The green has remained well guarded, and the fairway has shifted only slightly.
The redesigned hole 3, from the white tees
New tees were also added on five, using the natural landscape. The previous tees, in a natural depression, required too difficult a shot for even PGA players to hit the fairway with an oncoming wind.
A new tee box has also been crafted on the fifteenth, resulting in a 295-yard driveable par four experience that will promote the ultimate in risk/reward.
New tee on 15: 295 yards to an elevated green
(I hit the green-side bunker and scrambled for par)
Considerable work has also been done recently on the 17th, including removal of the hole’s only bunker, several trees and the cart path that formerly encroached on the hole’s playing area, and the addition of a new tee box that creates a different angle toward the fairway. The result is very aesthetically pleasing.
One of the biggest questions I have had about the 2017 US Open is this: How do they plan on playing the 18th hole on Sunday to make sure this nearly 700-yard par five promotes an exciting finish? The answer that I have been told is that it will play as is. The great challenge on 18 will be to hold on. Par will be a fantastic score. While Mark Wilson, who holds the course record from the tips with a 77, was once able to get pin-high in two on this breathtaking finishing hole with the “Village” and Holy Hill in the background, birdie or eagle here will be a challenging task to say the least!
Fine fescue has a germination period of about two years, so the new fairway and green areas on the third hole have plenty of time to mature to the perfect level that the rest of the course is in already. As for the course and its layout, I am told the work has been completed and that Erin Hills will play very similarly to the way it is being played now. The rest of what’s left is in the fine details, and there will be plenty of those, I’m sure.

While its 7,800 yards will likely be the longest course ever played in a major championship (it officially played at 7,760 yards for the 2011 US Amateur), that number is a bit misleading. With fast fairways and a lot of the distance built in to the mammoth par fives, the US Open at Erin Hills will play much like a typical British Open. Players will need to keep shots between un-mowed areas, and will be rewarded with distance via run-out when achieved.

Virtually unplayable finger bunkers will force players to “Take their medicine” to get errant shots back in play, and I can attest to the huge challenge that is faced when hitting in to this deep fescue. I shot an 89 from the white tees yesterday, including two holes that found me taking three or four shots out of the long stuff just to get back to the fairway (I took eights on both holes).

Even following an inch and a half of rain the night before, the greens were stimping at 11.5. The day before they were 13-13.5. With wind that ranged from fairly calm to about 15-20 miles per hour, the US Open-like conditions we played in and on were truly magnificent.

Come 2017, Erin Hills will not open to the public until after the US Open. Water on the course will be restricted from mid-May on to allow the turf to brown out, and the entire world will see pristine conditions for our country’s greatest championship – conditions that can only be found in our great state, and specifically in the sandy Kettle Moraine region of Southeastern Wisconsin.
It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin golf enthusiast! With next year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, upcoming Ryder Cups at Hazeltine in Minnesota in 2016, then Whistling Straits in 2020, a new Coore/Crenshaw design being crafted in central Wisconsin (Sand Valley, which will be home to as many as four world-class courses), and of course the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, golf keeps getting better and better in Wisconsin.

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