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.

Erin Hills: Teeing It Up for the 2017 US Open By Paul Seifert

Hot off the presses for GolfWisconsin:

Erin Hills: Teeing It Up for the 2017 US Open By Paul Seifert

As a side note, I am very happy with the way this article turned out. All of the behind-the-scenes work creates a nice blend of experiential writing and background. It is my hope that for years when people are curious about the site of the 2017 US Open (“Erin Hills – where’s that?”), they will find this article and it will give them all the info they’d been hoping for.

I hope you all have a great weekend!
– Paul

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.