Erin Hills: A Legend in the Making

It’s hard to believe Erin Hills is just 15 years old. It’s got all the looks and feels of a historic property that’s been played and refined for centuries. Certainly, no course in America has changed and accomplished more in as short a time as Erin Hills, going under the knife regularly to improve the guest and tournament experience in ways both noticeable and strategically long-term.

Constant change, and an unrivaled attention to detail, has always been in its DNA. Even when initially routed by the design team of Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, literally hundreds of golf holes were proposed.

Erin Hills, from high above (photo credit: Jeff Schaefer)

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Every detail had to be considered: The prevailing and ever-present winds, sunrises and sunsets, that the property’s most dramatic land forms were utilized most effectively, and that the architecture paid homage to the great Scottish and Irish courses where the game began while staying irrevocably original and unique to the glacial kettle moraine that breathes it life.

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Across 640 acres, careful attention is paid on a daily basis to sweat every detail. Millions of dollars have been spent over the years to grow and care for the fescue that sways in the breezes, for example, keeping weeds from growing in and pulling rocks and even pebbles by hand. The land may not have been tailor made for fescue, but damn if it wasn’t placed here for golf.

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The story of Erin Hills’ origins is well-documented, perhaps best by Gary D’Amato in his 2017 6-part series entitled “The Making of Erin Hills.”

D’Amato’s expose is rife with intrigue, starting with local business magnate Bob Lang. Lang was obsessed with developing the country’s next great tournament course, and specifically with bringing the US Open to Southeast Wisconsin. He knew he had the right property, and [mostly] the right team, and he put everything he had in to making his dream a reality.

The course was designed by then perceived underdogs Dr. Michael Hurdzan, Dana Fry and Ron Whitten, and opened to rave reviews. There were some quirks, though, and it was partly those quirks that led to continual investments meant to satisfy one demand after another by the USGA. These games, along with his initial investment, eventually cost Lang over $26 million.

His well had run dry, and new ownership would be needed to keep Lang’s dream alive. It was clear it would require someone whose financial security couldn’t be tied to such a passion project, and Erin Hills and the world of golf were fortunate to find that rare buyer in billionaire Andrew Ziegler.

Ziegler, Founding Partner and Lead Director of Artisan Partners, helped deliver Lang’s vision of a US Open at Erin Hills in 2017. And, I bet if you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and dream of seeing another.

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The Drumlin

One of Erin Hills’ most recent developments has been the opening of their Drumlin putting course, which debuted in August 2019. With 63,000 square feet of green surface set upon a ridge adjacent to the first tee, the Drumlin provides a wonderful way to add a little more golf to your day – whether before or after your round, or even when the sun goes down… The course is lit up at night.

An overhead view of the Drumlin putting course – the property’s newest amenity

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My brief thoughts and reflections on the US Open

Will Erin Hills get another shot at our country’s greatest golf tournament? I think they will. I also think they learned a lot from their first go-round. Everyone expected the wind to blow hard like it normally does, but it didn’t. Instead, they got a ton of rain early, softening the course, and then some of the hottest and most serene weather the property has seen.

The result was a bloodbath as Erin Hills was left defenseless against an onslaught by the world’s best golfers. While experts expected a winning score around par, 27 players finished in red numbers including Brooks Koepka whose winning score was an incomprehensible -16.

The course was beautiful and its aesthetics translated well to TV, though, and the drama was intriguing as viewers witnessed players doing things we never before thought were possible.

Justin Thomas, for example, carded a 63 on Sunday after hitting a 299-yard 3-wood – all carry to an elevated green, landing softly and basically checking up – to eight feet on 18 to set up EAGLE on the 667-yard par five finishing hole.

I remember asking at one of the US Open media days how they planned on making 18 exciting if players needed to make up a stroke down the stretch. I was told there wouldn’t be making up strokes on 18; everyone would need to find a way to par it or lose ground. It still blows my mind that that didn’t end up being the case. I can see there being one-putt birdies on 18, but not eagle opportunities.

All said, I think Erin Hills got a raw deal in 2017 – the same way Chambers Bay did in 2015 – and I hope new USGA leadership brings a future US Open(s) back to them both. Paving of the way for Erin Hills has already begun via two future USGA events (the 2022 US Mid-Amateur Championship and 2025 US Women’s Open), and I hope those lead to a return of “The Big One” in the late 2020’s or early ’30s.

The Erin Hills clubhouse and pro shop

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Our day

I can’t imagine there have been many better Summer days for golf at Erin Hills. It was June 22 and we had highs in the low 70’s with very little wind in the morning, and plenty of sunshine (don’t worry, the breezes picked up as the day wore on).

The one thing I didn’t take in to account when we set up the round was that it was the day after the Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year. In order to take photos at sunrise, I needed to leave the house by 4:30 am. I was obviously happy to for this opportunity, and was on-site with my drone in the air by 5:06.

The mist coming off the ponds, haze over the fairways and golden hue emanating from the fescue was magical, and I enjoyed all the stages of the day’s golden hour as I made my way from the parking lot to the 12th green complex.

The sun began cresting after my initial shoot from behind that incredible hole layout, and as I started shooting the par three 13th I started realizing how special this morning was.

Haze emanating from the ponds on the par three 13th at sunrise

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Among all the supplies I brought with me, I only brought one pair of socks. That became an obvious oversight as traipsing from one hole to the next had me wading through knee-high fescue soaked in dew.

With wet feet I ventured on, searching for the right angles. I’m sure I didn’t find them all, but I made the most of the morning and came away with some images I’m happy with.

I also took quite a bit of video footage – click on the image below for a 30-second clip from the morning (plays from YouTube):

Click for 30-second video compilation from my morning photo shoot (YouTube)

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Following my early morning photo shoot, I met up with my all-time favorite caddie and friend on social media, Julius Germany. Julius was the first caddie I ever played with at Erin Hills, back in July of 2012. We’ve kept in touch over the years via Facebook and Instagram, and he’s honestly the caddie I’ve compared all others to.

I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great loopers over the years, but none can match Julius’s skill and professionalism, general presence and great demeanor. I was really excited to spend the day with him, and he didn’t disappoint.

Neither did the other caddie in our group, Chloe. A college student, Chloe had a wonderful attitude that complemented Julius’s well. She made some great reads and the two led the three of us to a lot of good shots and drained putts.

The world’s best caddie, Julius, and me post-round (6/22/2021)

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Our threesome included my favorite golf partner and “drone co-pilot,” Jeff (we have the same drone and he’s a huge help especially when we’re taking photos in-round), me and Erin Hills PGA Ambassador and Wisconsin Golf Hall of Famer Rich Tock.

Inducted in 2019, Rich has had a storied career that’s included playing in 22 PGA of America National Club Pro Championships, 8 Senior Professional Championships, won the Wisconsin State Senior Open in 2005, played on 26 Nelthorpe Cup teams and competed in the US Senior Open in 2002 (link to wisconsin.golf article, by Gary D’Amato).

Rich is at his best one-on-one, as I first learned on July 29, 2012 when I first visited Erin Hills and had the pleasure of spending hours on the pub’s patio talking golf, the property and its background and stories that had led it to where it was at that time (link to my 2012 course review).

As PGA Ambassador, Rich is the face of Erin Hills. His presence is ever-felt as he makes his way around the property on an almost daily basis, spending time with staff and guests, constantly tending to the small details that make this site so spectacular (including picking up any and every cigarette butt, broken tee or wrapper left on the ground), and of course helping promote the destination through its various media channels including his “Playing Lessons,” which can be found on Erin Hills’ YouTube channel (link to Rich Tock’s Playing Lessons).

Rich is a skilled player who consistently hits the ball down the middle with good length and has an incredible short game. He plays quickly and doesn’t take things too seriously. He can also talk to every story about Erin Hills – all the changes and adaptations, the legendary shots and players who have walked its fairways and of course strategy and playability. His fun and collegial manner make him one of my all-time favorite playing partners, and I hope for the opportunity to enjoy a round with him again in the future.

We joked with Jeff’s caddie, Chloe, that she had the easiest job in the world: He hit almost every fairway and I don’t think ever found the fescue en route to an easy 80.

Julius, who caddied for Rich and me, faced a bit more devious task of having to help locate several of my sliced tee balls when fighting the wind. Both caddies were amazing, as was all the company, and our day at Erin Hills was as good and memorable a golf experience as any I can remember.

Jeff, Rich and me following a great 18 holes at Erin Hills (6/22/2021)

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The course

The golf course at Erin Hills is remarkable. It’s beautiful, architecturally interesting and challenging all while providing an enjoyable experience for players of all skill levels.

It starts with a couple scorable holes in one and two, leading off with a par five that allows players to bite off as much as they want from the tee while negotiating one of the course’s few inland ponds. We were a collective -2 following the second hole, and a day of good scores felt attainable.

A view of the fairway on the first hole at Erin Hills, bending right-to-left from the tee boxes

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The second hole is one of my favorites at Erin Hills. A short par four with one of the most forgiving fairways, long hitters have a ton of room for error off the tee. The second shot is tricky, though, with the course’s smallest tabletop green that repels anything hit off-center.

The fairway on two was expanded prior to the US Open, as shown in the image below. The shaded area beyond the hill was previously fescue, coercing players toward smarter shots. The USGA wanted to urge long players like Bubba Watson to try driving the green here, and so the short grass was expanded.

As you can imagine, with long bombs toward this green complex comes risk. Short wedges are anything but simple from tight lies, making a full shot from just inside 100 yards oftentimes the smarter strategy.

A look back on the second hole at Erin Hills at sunrise
An aerial view of the tiny second green

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The third and fourth holes play in to the prevailing wind, and from significantly elevated tee boxes. I have always had a hard time driving the ball on this set of par fours, and I did on this day, as well.

The green on three was relocated prior to the 2017 US Open, as the original complex was a natural site with too extreme of a slope. The new green, while it shortens the hole by 18 yards, shifted the approach about 20 yards to the right and helps make the putting surface more receptive to long iron shots while opening up more hole locations.

An offset view of the third hole at Erin Hills, playing in to the wind

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The fourth has one of my favorite looking approach areas on the entire course, littered with craggy bunkers up the spine of its fairway.

The approach area short of the fourth green (photo taken in September 2013)

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The sixth is the first par three on the course, and one of the trickiest. A long one-shotter, only the front section of the green is shown, leaving some 40 or so yards past its lateral spine. I absolutely flushed a seven-iron with the wind, and everyone thought it was perfect.

Thinking I was on hole-in-one watch, I walked up the hill only to find about 50 feet to go to a back hole next to a steep slope. My high hopes turned to bogie pretty quickly.

A view from the back of the par three 6th green

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The eighth is an exceptional par four. The tee shot is blind, playing slightly to the right or directly above the high mound that serves as an aiming point.

This is a terrific example of the beautiful, natural land movement at Erin Hills. Aside and beyond the mound, this fairway moves like waves and with tons of changes in elevation, and the green is perched well above the rest of the playing surface.

A view from above the tee box on eight, with the fairway bending left around the mound and uphill to its perched green site
The dramatically elevated green site on eight at sunrise

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One of the most famous holes on the entire property, the par three ninth was previously the course’s bye hole – a 19th hole that served to settle bets.

When the USGA requested that its originally included “Dell hole,” which was a long and gimmicky, blind par three with a rock that was moved on a daily basis to provide an aiming point, was removed, the ninth was moved in to its permanent position. I for one can’t imagine Erin Hills without it.

The all-world par three 9th at Erin Hills from its elevated tee boxes
An elevated view from behind the ninth green looking uphill toward the tees

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The back nine starts with what I consider to be the most challenging hole on the entire course. The tenth is a long test of a par four that plays straight in to the prevailing wind, and finishes uphill to a long left-to-right green protected in front by deep sand traps.

I hit what might have been the best 3-wood of my life on this day. Following a tee shot to the middle of the fairway, I had 242 yards left in to a sustained 20 mph wind. “I didn’t travel out to Erin Hills to lay up,” I said, and Rich told me to aim small, miss small. I caught it just right, hitting a towering shot right at the pin. It landed just left of the flag and rolled to about 15 feet.

If there was ever a birdie putt I really wanted to make, it was this one. Julius gave me a great read, but I pulled it just a little, leading to a tap-in par.

The challenging par four 10th, playing over a crevasse and directly in to the prevailing winds

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Following a knee-knocker like ten, the eleventh is a friendly handshake. Short by Erin Hills standards, it measures just 315 from the green tees we were playing and has a wide open fairway with a lot of movement from right-to-left. Hybrid was the play of the day here, and we all walked away with par.

The short par four 11th from beyond the green

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As 50 golf enthusiasts their favorite hole at Erin Hills and I would venture a bet that a good portion of them will tell you the twelfth.

With elevated tees heading back in to the wind, the twelfth has some of the most out-of-this-world land movement of any golf hole I’ve played in my life, finishing downhill and to the right to the course’s only lowered green complex. There is something really special about this hole, and to me the sunrise brought out a lot of that!

The meandering fairway of the 12th at Erin Hills, with the sunrise at my back
The twelfth green and its approaching fairway basking in the early morning sunlight

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The thirteenth is a mid-range par three that measures 170 yards from the green tees and has one of the smaller, hardest to hit greens on the back nine. A large bunker works its way in to the left side of the putting surface, and short, long and right all lead to collection areas well below the green’s surface.

The par three 13th at Erin Hills

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The fourteenth is one of the most fun holes at Erin Hills. A 507-yard par five, the green is so wide, so elevated and canted from left-to-right that it makes for a playful approach that’s really hard to resist.

I’ll never forget the first time I played here, and Julius told me to grab my wedge and try this shot. From short-right of the green I literally hit the back-left of the putting surface, watched it roll upward almost off and bend around right and downhill probably 50 yards from where it started, funneling toward a front-right pin. Creativity and options like that are just so much fun, and how could you ask for more than a caddie who makes sure you don’t miss that type of opportunity?

An aerial view of the par five 14th at Erin Hills, finishing over fescue with one of the most fun greens I’ve played

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Short par fours are all the rage these days, and Erin Hills has an exemplary one in its fifteenth. I watched a lot of groups on this hole at the 2017 US Open, and almost all the players took dead aim at green-under-regulation, but very few hit it.

At just 346 yards from the green tees, the elevated green brings in all kinds of trouble: Deep fescue long, deeper greenside bunkers short and steep run-offs all around.

The short par four 15th from the tees (photo taken in June 2015)

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Other than the ninth, the sixteenth has probably the most intimidating par three tee shot at Erin Hills. Sand traps are littered everywhere around this skinny green complex.

Tee shot on the par three 16th, with sand everywhere (photo taken September 2013)

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Tipping out at 663 yards (it can stretch over 700 for tournament play), the eighteenth at Erin Hills is one of the longest in golf. The hole is framed beautifully by The Village, and from afar by nearby Holy Hill.

To anyone other than Justin Thomas, this is a true three-shot par five and one of the most wonderfully climactic finishing holes found anywhere.

Looking down the fairway of the long par five 18th
Fairway and fescue leading to the green on the tremendous finishing hole at Erin Hills
How Justin Thomas managed to hit a 299-yard 3-wood to land softly and stop 8 feet from the hole here is beyond me

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Conclusion

Erin Hills provides the most complete first-class golf experience in the state of Wisconsin.

Folks like Rich Tock, Julius Germany, Head Golf Professional Jim Lombardo, Director of Course Management Zach Reineking, Competitions and Marketing Director John Morrissett and Marketing Manager Steve Pease work tirelessly to make that statement true, and to me it’s evident in every touchpoint.

From the time you drop your bag off at the caddie barn to the moment you walk away from your last Fescue Rescue, all the details are curated and managed to perfection.

It’s a pricy round, sure, but it’s also an indulgence that can revive your golfing spirit. To me, there is no finer golf experience in the entire state of Wisconsin than at this legend in the making.

The Drumlin putting course and Erin Hills Village, early morning

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Course Wrap-Up:
Location: Erin, WI
Yardages: Black-7731, Blue-7147, Green-6742, White-6206
Slope/Rating: Black-145/77.9, Blue-139/75.0, Green-135/73.2, White-129/70.3
Par: 72

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Erin Hills Golf Course Website

Published by WiscoGolfAddict

Writer & Publisher/Photographer/Content Creator for WiscoGolfAddict.com, and occasional contributor to other [mostly state and regional] golf publications. Healthcare/long-term care industry sales/strategy professional.

3 thoughts on “Erin Hills: A Legend in the Making

    1. Thanks, Kris, I’m glad you enjoyed it and appreciate the comment. It’s such an incredible property, you’ll have to get there!

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