What makes Erin Hills a great golf course, and why is it widely considered to be among the state and country’s premier golf destinations? After all, the course sits in the middle of rural Wisconsin and does not boast miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline or vast sand dunes, like Whistling Straits and Sand Valley, respectively. And, unlike those two other elite Wisconsin properties, Erin Hills has just one 18-hole course to offer its guests.
In my first visit to Erin Hills in 2007, the course had just been built and was still growing in. Buzz was beginning to circulate about this little-known public track in Southeast Wisconsin. While the property was impressive, I wasn’t blown away by the golf course when it was in its infancy. Then, in 2017 I visited as a spectator of the U.S. Open. While notable improvements since 2007 were apparent, I did not experience them in the same way one would playing the course.
This May, I finally returned to play Erin Hills and discovered what makes it great: In short, a stunning piece of land and commitment to excellence.
The course sits just west of the Kettle Moraine in rolling farmland. Millions of years of glacial sculpting yielded a vast property of dramatic hills and valleys ideally suited for golf. This was recognized by the farmers owning the land prior to Erin Hills’ development and the original course owner, Bob Lang.
The land was barely moved or altered to create the course, as natural fairway corridors and greens sites already existed. Architects Hurdzan, Fry and Whitten largely discovered the holes in the landscape, rather than create them. Even though the property is not sand-based nor proximate to a large body of water, the topography alone makes it one of the best pieces of land for golf in the entire country.
The property is large enough to fit at least 36 holes of excellent golf, but limiting it to one course ensured that the routing contained only the very best 18 holes that could be found on the site. That decision paid off as there is not a single weak hole at Erin Hills, with 18 dramatic ones showcasing the compelling topography. Credit is due to the architects and Erin Hills’ stewards for letting the land speak for itself while bringing out its best qualities through exceptional routing, hole design and conditioning.
A Commitment to Excellence
From its very beginning, Erin Hills has strived to be not only an upscale public course, but one of the elite courses in the country capable of hosting major championships and a must-play destination for golfers from around the world.
At the outset, Bob Lang shot for the moon and set out to achieve the impossible – to bring the U.S. Open to an unknown public property in the Midwest. Lang drove himself to the brink of financial ruin improving the course after its initial opening in 2006 to make necessary changes to the course to achieve this vision. In short, that’s the legend of Erin Hills – it became great, against all odds and at any cost.
Andy Ziegler bought the course in 2009 and set to work taking it to the next level. This included large-scale course redesign and improvements with an eye towards hosting the 2017 U.S. Open. Perhaps more importantly, under Ziegler, Erin Hills has been transformed from a nice golf course into a world-class destination. Additions to the resort infrastructure, including adding a second clubhouse and expanding lodging options, coupled with an investment in exceptional service capabilities, have made Erin Hills one of the best places to visit, stay and golf in America.
The service was as outstanding, or perhaps even better, than anything I have seen at a premier golf resort. My experience at Erin Hills was nothing short of top-notch, from the moment I drove into the entrance to the moment I departed. The bag staff, pro shop, food and beverage service, and most importantly the caddies all made me feel like a highly valued guest, and every one of my needs was handled promptly and impeccably. Brandon, assistant caddy master, took my bag while Tim, head caddy master, was also in our group. In addition to their fun personalities, they brought a wealth of course knowledge and very quickly tailored their assistance to each of our individual playing abilities. I know I saved at least a few shots thanks to Brandon.
Recently, Erin Hills converted its fairways from fescue to bentgrass. I was absolutely stunned at how perfect the playing surfaces were this early in the season. Simply put, the fairway conditions are some of the best I have ever played (thankfully, I hit a few of them to find out!) and were in a condition you’d expect to find at an elite private club in mid-season. The conversion to bentgrass certainly played a huge role in that. Fescue notoriously takes a long time to green up each Spring in Wisconsin, and the greens crew has done an amazing job getting the course to this point by mid-May despite dismal early-season weather.
#4 – Par 4, 439/403/385/280 Yards
The 4th hole is a great example of a recurring theme at Erin Hills that takes full advantage of its unique topography. The hole starts from an elevated tee box and takes a thrilling ride downhill before ascending back to a perched green complex with steep slopes and deep bunkers providing stiff defense.
Many holes at Erin Hills follow a similar progression – downhill tee shot, uphill approach. To me, this makes tee shots very fun, as I am a relatively low-ball hitter and don’t get to see my ball sail through the air for a long time very often. The uphill approach shots make up for the relative generosity off the tee. Many approaches at Erin Hills are blind or semi-blind, and while blind shots aren’t everyone’s cup of tea I find them interesting and engaging provided I have some idea of where to aim (thanks to Brandon, I did!). The elevated tee boxes and greens also provide excellent vistas of the surrounding property and beyond.
#7 – Par 5, 607/576/551/487/389 Yards
The 7th hole is a slight dogleg left packed with more elevation changes and bunkers. The tee shot must avoid bunkers both left and right. From there, the safe play is to lay up short of a center bunker to set up a short iron for the uphill approach. Only the longest of hitters will consider going for it in two, especially with the hole playing into the prevailing wind. My wedges were dialed in for most of the round, and on this hole I stuck my approach to 4 feet and sunk the birdie putt.
#15 – Par 4, 366/356/346/299/252
The 15th hole is a short, yet dangerous par 4 playing to the corner of the property. Off the tee, players must decide whether to take on a set of center bunkers and play to near the green, or lay up to the right and face a longer, more difficult approach. I chose the latter route, and after two good shots I still found myself 50 feet away with an extremely difficult putt. That’s another stellar trait of Erin Hills – aggressive play is appropriately matched with lucrative reward for a good shot but a big penalty for a miss, while conservative play opens the door to a tough par or easy bogey. Most of the holes on the course have these types of options and trade-offs.
#16 – Par 3, 190/180/167/140/126 Yards
The 16th is a shorter par 3 that appears easy from the tee. What isn’t apparent from the tee is the scale of bunkers and slopes surrounding the green as well as the narrow width of the green. None of my group hit the green despite dreams of making birdie while standing on the tee.
Erin Hills has always been near the top of my favorite courses I’ve played, and that opinion only grew stronger after playing it this year. The supreme conditions, excellent changes to the course since 2007, and unrivaled service all contributed to this. The course has become great over the years thanks to amazing land and a commitment to excellence that has spanned multiple owners and cost a fortune. Erin Hills deserves to be in the discussion for best course and golf destination in Wisconsin, and on the short list of great public golf properties in the entire nation.
For more on Erin Hills, check out WiscoGolfAddict’s full review here: