Appeared in September/October 2006 LINKS
Bob Lang, normally the most talkative of men, has fallen into a silent reverie, and no wonder. From where he stands—atop a huge glacial dune that guards the dogleg of the 496-yard par-4 9th hole at Erin Hills Golf Course—the view is sensational. The hole is called “Rollercoaster” for reasons that are obvious. From up here, the ground tumbles sharply down to the fairway, while beyond, a dozen more holes stretch away toward the horizon.
“There are whitecaps out there today,” says Erin Hills’ owner Lang, gesturing toward the fescue, turning shimmery and silver in the wind. “I want a golfer to stand here and wonder: What’s out there? I want him to feel a sense of mystery.”
That won’t be hard. Erin Hills, which opened August 1, is one of the most anticipated new courses in years. But a major source of the intrigue is not a public relations firm, big-name architect or a celebrity owner.
Erin Hills’ biggest booster may be the U.S. Golf Association, which awarded it the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship before the course even had been seeded. “The place is just a magical piece of land, just amazing,” says Mike Davis, the USGA’s senior director for rules & competitions, who visited Erin Hills four times during the construction process and has provided input. USGA Executive Director David B. Fay admits that the decision was “greatly out of character” for his organization, adding, “I can’t wait to see it in its finished form.”
Fay and others now can drive 45 minutes northwest from Milwaukee into Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine district and let their imagination run riot at the awesome potential of this huge parcel of land.
But no visitor’s imagination could be bigger than Lang’s own dreams—he makes no secret of his ambition of hosting the U.S. Open. Despite remaining scrupulously noncommittal, USGA officials have made too many visits and sound too impressed for Lang’s hopes to be dismissed as folly.
Erin Hills has plenty in its favor. It is new, public and in the Midwest, two-and-a-half hours from Chicago (not much more than Shinnecock Hills from midtown Manhattan). And at 650 acres, Erin Hills can accommodate all the tents and compounds the USGA needs. (By comparison, Winged Foot, with two courses, covers just 280 acres.)
Just about the only missing piece is history. Since experimenting with new courses for the Open more than 30 years ago, the USGA has yet to go back to Bellerive (’65), Champions (’69) and Atlanta Athletic Club (’76), and only returned to 1970 host Hazeltine National after a redesign.
Still, the USGA seems willing to take a chance on Erin Hills. “This could be an all-world golf course,” says Davis, “that could, if they build the right kind of golf course, host just about anything.”
Despite the positive feelings, the USGA is proceeding slowly. The first step is to see how average golfers handle it; the second is to see how it plays at the Publinks, which will be played in June, the same month as the Open.
‘Prairie Dunes and Shinnecock combined’
The big wild card is the course itself, where the dominant landform is the dunes. Formed by glaciers, the land rises and falls a total of 62 feet and is full of unpredictable rolls, blind pockets and precipitous drops. On the par-4 12th, the fairway falls away so abruptly that a golf cart traveling too quickly will get airborne.
“When the glacier came through and started backing off, it dropped all these pockets of sand and gravel,” says co-designer Mike Hurdzan, “leaving a very unpredictable landform that just tumbles and rolls and falls.
“That makes for more cerebral golf, and I think it’s also more fun because the ball goes farther and you can play more different types of shots.”
Since the glaciers did most of the heavy lifting thousands of years ago, the design team of Ron Whitten and partners Hurdzan and Dana Fry moved almost no dirt, apart from lowering the upper fairway of the 1st hole some 20 feet.
“Designing” Erin Hills simply meant staking out holes. Before arriving at the current 19-hole layout—there’s a “bye” hole between nines—the team contemplated about a dozen routings. “There were so many nice holes out there that trying to select ones that would link together was one of the biggest challenges,” Hurdzan says.
Linking the holes yielded an awesome yardage: 7,824 yards from the black tees. An additional “back black” set of tees, at more than 8,000 yards, is available for the future—“if needed.” Heck, there’s enough room around the tees that 9,000 isn’t inconceivable. Concerned about scaring away customers, Lang points out that there are five sets of tees, the shortest at 4,543 yards.
Superintendent Jeff Rottier points out that that it’s probably a good thing that the opening tee shot—to a heaving sliver of a fairway between wetlands and deep fescue—is so visually intimidating. “It will make people move up to a more realistic tee,” he says.
Lang himself plays from the forward tees, when he does at all; he is not much of a golfer, playing no more than 10 rounds a year. In the mid ’90s, he was still running his greeting-card and calendar business when he saw a golf-course screensaver and remarked that one day he’d like to build a nine-hole course for his family and employees.
In 1999, he found 432 acres for sale in a crossroads town propitiously called Erin. A former farm, the land was too hilly for anything other than grazing cattle and making hay. Lang bought a two-year option, as well as all the adjacent land as it became available.
Lang had no idea how special the land was until, one after another, veteran golfers walked the property—part heartland pasture, part windblown links—and raved about it. “To me, it’s a combination of Prairie Dunes and Shinnecock Hills,” says USGA Vice President Jim Reinhart, who lives in suburban Milwaukee.
Lang is determined to keep the course looking natural. The bunkers have a ragged, windswept look—modeled after photographs taken by Whitten of the Kansas foothills, eroded naturally from water and wind.
After the topography, the other defining characteristic is the waist-high native grass that frames the holes, providing a stern hazard—golfers missing fairways will be drowning in a sea of fescue. “It’s like a cornfield,” warns Erin Hills pro Kent Instefjord. “You could lose a kid in there.”
Open to the public Lang has two dreams for his course: The first is the U.S. Open. The second is for everyday golfers to enjoy Erin Hills. The son of a truck driver, he has a strong populist streak. “I do not want to build it for just 200 rich guys,” says Lang, who will charge $125 for Wisconsin residents and $150 for out-of-state visitors.
Spectators will find Erin Hills welcoming as well; the broad ridges between holes make perfect amphitheaters. “It’s almost a natural stadium course,” marvels Davis. “It’s better than any stadium course the PGA Tour has ever been to.”
Put it all together, and Erin Hills will be a challenge, especially in the wind. Though most holes have dramatic elevation changes, not one is like another. “Every hole has a little surprise of some kind,” notes Whitten.
The greens also offer variety: punchbowls, mounded “Pinehurst” greens and surfaces level with the fairway. The 10th plays to a 78-yard-long Biarritz green, a challenging end to the 652-yard hole, the longest on the course. It’s also uphill.
Lang’s personal favorite may be No. 7, the Dell, a blind 201-yard par 3 with a white rock to show the line. “People are going to come from far and wide to play that hole because it’s so unique in America,” says Whitten. The “bye” hole, a downhill par 3 of 164 yards fortified by the most penal bunkering on the course, likely will replace the Dell for USGA events.
The finishing hole, a 631-yard par 5, is called Holy Hill, for the monastery whose twin spires beckon from a distant ridge. The hole has 12 bunkers, six of them clustered in front of the green, where from a distance they look like a clutch of eggs—disasters waiting to hatch.
As Lang makes his way up the 18th fairway, he relates a dream he’s been having recently: “It’s a Sunday afternoon in June, 10 years from now. Tiger Woods and Adam Scott are in the final pairing of the U.S. Open, with Scott leading by one stroke. Both take dead aim at Holy Hill and hit good drives. Scott lays up. Will Tiger go for it? We won’t know the ending for 10 years.”
Who knows? If Lang’s dream is realized, the ending might come sooner.
Editor's note: Dreams do come true. Erin Hills, which hosted the 2011 U.S. Amateur, will host the 2017 U.S. Open.