US Open Media Day: Erin Hills Golf Course

With the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay in the books, Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania is now on deck, and then Wisconsin’s very own Erin Hills is in the hole as upcoming sites of our nation’s greatest golf championship.

Each year leading up to the 2017 US Open, Erin Hills Golf Course hosts the media day event of all media day events: Fantastic guest speakers, good food, open and honest discussion about the state of the game and expectations for the event, plentiful opportunities to interact with the people behind the scenes, and of course tremendous golf.

WiscoGolfAddict review of Erin Hills (my most popular course review ever)

Changes to the course at Erin Hills have been finalized since last year’s media event, and the key prerogative now is to keep the course as well conditioned as possible. The bent grass greens are flawless – they were running 11 to 11.5 for our event, and co-designer of the course, Ron Whitten, said via Twitter that they were designed to be subtle enough with the breaks to be capable of accommodating 14 on a stimp meter without being unrealistic for the big tournament.

2014 Erin Hills Media Day: Counting Down the Years to the 2017 US Open

Leading things off at this year’s media day was Erin Hills’ Competitions Director John Morrissett. Morrissett is said to be the most knowledgeable expert on golf in the entire state, and I do not doubt it for a second.

Erin Hills Competitions Director John Morrissett
Erin Hills Competitions Director John Morrissett

As an aside: If you read my site then chances are you may also be a follower of John’s brother’s site, John’s brother, Ran Morrissett’s GCA site is one of the most popular golf websites in the world.

Morrissett provided a brief introduction to the event and the excitement centered around the upcoming competition, and then introduced the General Chairman of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, Jim Reinhart. Reinhart, former Vice President of the USGA and a Mequon resident, went over the general landscape of the US Open and professional golf before introducing the event’s key note speaker, Governor Scott Walker.

General Chairman of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, Jim Reinhart
General Chairman of the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills, Jim Reinhart

Governor Walker’s presentation centered around the economic impact of the game of golf in Wisconsin, and was highlighted by some wonderful statistics including the expected impact to the Milwaukee area for the 2017 US Open: $140-170 million (the estimates I have heard have been closer to $250 million) as the first US Open in the Midwest since 2003.

Golf, in general, has an economic impact of around $2.4 billion to the state of Wisconsin, and provides 38,000 jobs state-wide. $400 million of that $2.4 billion comes in the way of tourism, and highlights of the upcoming championship feature more than 28 hours of international television and 35,000-plus onsite spectators per day.

Governor Walker was on point with his statistics and general knowledge about the upcoming US Open, and it was unfortunate that few of the attendees were content to stay on the topic of golf.

Governor Scott Walker, speaking about the economic impact of the game of golf and the upcoming 2017 US Open, to the state of Wisconsin
Governor Scott Walker, speaking about the economic impact of the game of golf and the upcoming 2017 US Open, to the state of Wisconsin

The question and answer section drifted all over, covering the proposed Bucks arena, the state budget, the Wisconsin vs. Illinois rivalry, plans to announce his campaign for Presidency, and just about everything else other than golf.

The discussion was getting stale (to golf enthusiasts), and golf-minded spectators like myself realized that with the heavy hitters in this room our time to find out important details about Erin Hills’ plans for the US Open were coming to a halt.

Following one press member’s line of questioning about a supposed loan that was given to a company that defaulted, I grabbed my opportunity:

Governor Walker: “Toward the front, do you have a question?”

Me: “Yes, my question is for Jim Reinhart and maybe for Zach Reineking. In my circle of golf enthusiasts, I have been hearing that they think the course at Chambers Bay looked unplayable and unfair. The USGA is obviously planning on browning out the course here, too, for the big event but what does the balance between fast and furious vs. looking good to the layman/weekend spectator on television look like?”

I swear I could sense a feign smile from Governor Walker that there was finally a question about golf. “Jim?” The governor was finally able to step aside for a few minutes.

I actually more or less blacked out as I was not completely ready to pose my question, and it probably came out a bit differently than I intended it to. Reinhart responded with “Well there is actually no poa annua on the golf course here. The greens are entirely bent grass, which does not get strained the same way that fescue and poa annua does and the course should look as beautiful then as it does today.”

Good answer. The truth is, though, that the course has little to no say as to what the conditions will look like when the US Open does arrive. The USGA, who will have employees onsite within weeks, has almost complete control over factors like the course conditions, green speeds, etc.

What has been harped on by the layman golf fan about Chambers Bay, though, was the greens’ conditions. I have played the course at Chambers Bay several times and find it to be a wonderful and fair course. When browning it out to the point that the USGA did for the event, though, the mix of poa annua and fescue created some putting surfaces that were not quite always true, and especially the effect of poa annua changing directions according to the location of the sun created a memorable moment or two in which the playing conditions appeared to have been unfair.

This did not come in to play during Dustin Johnson’s three-putt to lose the US Open from twelve feet. It should also be mentioned, though, that the 360-yard drive to the narrowest point of the eighteenth fairway and then his 240-plus yard five-iron were two of the most amazing golf shots I have ever seen.

There is not a golfer in the world who has not missed a pressure-packed four-footer. My heart went out to Dustin Johnson. I was hoping for a legendary Monday playoff.

But, I digress. Erin Hills will not have the same worries. As an all fescue facility with bent grass greens, there will be no grasses altering position from one part of the day to the next, and the greens should remain nearly flawless throughout the tournament. The fairways, though, will be browned out as they were at Chambers Bay and last year at Pinehurst, No. 2.

The browned out course conditions support one of the USGA’s top initiatives: Making top-notch golf more eco-friendly and less penal on American water supply. It also speeds up the fairways, making a course that can potentially play over 8,000 yards more realistic for the world’s greatest players.

Reinhart’s summary of the Chambers Bay US Open went like this: “[The course was] stunningly beautiful, it was exceedingly difficult, there was a great leader board and it was won by a great young champion for the ages (Jordan Spieth).”

These were my thoughts… Exactly!

I am okay with Tiger Woods not being on the leader board. I did find it somewhat sad, though, that his atrocious play and the overall media circus around his group was able to bring the otherwise hot Rickie Fowler’s game down so dramatically, and in retrospect even more sad that Louis Oosthuizen could have potentially been in the mix on Sunday if it were not for the first two days’ pairings. It obviously all comes down to professional golfers performing, but something really strange happened during Thursday’s opening round with those three.

To prepare for the big event in 2017, the course will close early next year, around September, and will not reopen again until after the US Open.

2017 is just one year, but what about the future? It is the opinion of many in the know that the USGA is looking for a legitimate site for USGA championships in the Midwest, and Erin Hills has a big step up on the competition. It is theirs’ to lose, and I for one do not see that happening.

“Between the two of us,” there have been horrible, horrible problems with hosting major events in the Chicago area: Supplies and services tend not to show up on time [because of union and quite possibly mob] demands; the overall political and financial atmosphere became an absolute nightmare. In particular, I have heard that the BMW Championship at Conway Farms was particularly trying.

Rural Wisconsin, and the friendly economic environment that is provided here, should allow for a setting that will lead to many more great golf tournaments to come.

I would be remiss if I did not add a few more points of interest that came out of this media day event:

  • In conversation with Dana Fry, who is one of the designers of Erin Hills and many other world-class golf courses [along with Whitten and Dr. Col. Michael Hurdzan], the team visited the future site of Coore/Crenshaw’s first course at Mike Keiser’s Sand Valley project around Wisconsin Rapids and believe it will open as a top ten golf course in the world
  • It was awesome having the opportunity to speak with Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten, and also very interesting talking with them about other area projects, especially one of my other favorite courses in Wisconsin: Wild Rock in Wisconsin Dells
  • One of Reinhart’s funniest lines while comparing the site at Erin Hills to Chambers Bay came when saying that Erin Hills has eight times more trees (there are eight trees on the course)
Erin Hills' course designers Ron Whitten, Michael Hurdzan and Dana Frye at the 2015 US Open media day event
Erin Hills’ course designers Ron Whitten, Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry at the 2015 US Open media day event

I have been in talks with Rich Tock, Director of Marketing and Ambassador to PGA Professionals and Corporate America at Erin Hills (as well as former Head Pro at Ozaukee Country Club for 21 years), about bringing you all much more information about the course’s progress as we draw closer to the 2017 US Open, and look forward to sharing it all with you.

I truly believe that Erin Hills will be one of our country’s greatest US Open venues – not just for 2017 but for many more years going forward.

Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, WI
Erin Hills Golf Course in Erin, WI

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